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The Monologues: What I Learned from Christchurch

On the 15th of March 2019, a mass shooting took place during Friday prayers in Christchurch, New Zealand, killing 50 Muslims. I first heard about the attack on social media, and the subsequent wave of emotions I felt came on like a riptide. I was immediately sucked in, and I just couldn’t escape. I spent the day crying in bed, trying to make sense of my place in the world, and wondering if I would ever feel safe in a mosque again. Simultaneously, I was preparing for one of the most hectic times of my PhD in Neuroscience. I was in the midst of writing two scientific manuscripts and compiling a report to conclude my laboratory’s collaboration with an industry partner. I was hoping to wrap up my degree within the next twelve months, however, at this point in time, I literally couldn’t get out of bed. I was distraught and unsure of how to digest my emotions.

As a Muslim girl who was born and raised in the West, I always felt that I straddled two worlds. I existed and continue to exist as a visible minority, and given that hate crimes have been on the rise in recent years, I have often felt concern for my personal safety and the safety of other visible minorities. On top of that, as a graduate student I sometimes have feelings of guilt surrounding my desire to take time off after incidents like those in Christchurch, Chapel Hill, Paris, Manchester, Orlando, and Quebec City. Given the work-life imbalance that is associated with being a graduate student, I felt that taking time off would make me appear uncommitted and unprofessional.

Before deciding to take time off, I essentially had to carefully weigh the pros and cons of being away for some time. Yes, I would be losing valuable time for experiments, but I would be allowing myself to fully feel the slew of emotions that had been brought on by the attack. After careful consideration, I ended up stepping away from the lab following March 15th. I left Canada, and spent some much-needed time with my mother. We watched movies, and when I needed to, I cried in her arms. When I finally returned to Canada, I was faced with the emotional baggage of being visible and exposed yet again. I worried about my safety on public transit. I had a lump in my throat at all times. And I was scared that I’d never be as focussed or as motivated to perform well for the remainder of my graduate degree.

A few weeks after the 15th, I had the sudden realisation that I was much better off because I had stepped away from the lab, and had allowed myself to be upset, to be angry, and to be sad. Up until that point, I hadn’t realised that I had been carrying the weight of all these tragic events for years, never wavering from my dedication to the lab. But what I have learned about myself in these tough times is the art of being as kind to myself as I try to be to others. In telling myself to get over my emotions as quickly as possible, I was invalidating my own feelings, which did more harm than good in the long-run. My mother always tells me to extract as many lessons as I can from all of my life experiences, and in this case, I learned that it is okay to take a break, even if it means missing an experiment or two. In forcing myself to suffocate the emotions that arose as a result of these attacks, I was fighting against an insurmountable force, a figurative riptide. I now give myself permission to feel, and excuse myself. It can be hard though: to this day, I still need to remind myself that even the strongest swimmers can’t fight a riptide.