Welcome to Untethered: Healing the Trance of Self-Loathing
Updated: Mar 24
I recently saw a NASA photo captioned, “Perhaps the most terrifying space photograph around. Astronaut Bruce McCandless II floats untethered away from the safety of the space shuttle, with nothing but his Manned Maneuvering Unit keeping him alive. The first person in history to do so.” Eyes on the photo, I was 6 years old again wide awake back in my bed within graduate student housing cinder-block walls that separated me from the black of night. It was late. A year before we had moved from Rasht, Iran to Palo Alto, California, United States of America.
I’ve always been afraid – terrified and terrorized by the feeling of reeling into space untethered, alone. When you're raised to serve others, you don't know when you end and others begin. My boisterous, large and ever-present family in Iran was reduced to a nuclear family of four in a strange land. Two parents I didn't know well, who were themselves reeling in a new land, and who I knew I relied on.
52 years old now, I feel flustered to say I have never felt safe in an intimate relationship. Long phases of barreling through dark, endless space solo when it came to intimacy. Yes, I know all about attachment wounds and trauma bonding. Don't get me started. It felt familiar. The real rub was becoming emotionally available to myself. Years of stuffing that abyss with work. Food. Distractions.
At 6 years old, I wasn't unusual for me to lie awake at 11pm, in a silent house, wondering what I how would survive if I ever lost my parents, feeling the weight of the night on my chest. My father’s habitual warnings didn’t help: the homicide at the church on Stanford campus nearby, the College Terrace rapist who was still on the loose who would trick housewives into letting them into their homes.
Sometimes my mom played songs by my Persian pop singer, Googoosh, on cassette to soothe me to sleep. I negotiated with my dad for "just one more bedtime story." I’d pepper him with questions: What held up the universe? Whose shoulders was all of this resting on? What kept us from hurtling into space in different directions, alone? What is the glue that keeps us together? What keeps Earth from falling down? I wanted reassurance. As in, just tell me it's going to be alright. Not getting much in the way of answers, my fear bloomed daily. Just when I finally found some community and connection by joining our local Brownies group, after two days, my dad pulled me out. "Too dangerous," he said. An axe murderer in the woods had massacred a handful of girl scouts with a machete.
My memoir-in-progress travels through my life from my arrival as a child in the U.S. from Iran before the 1979 Iranian revolution to today, stopping off at all the places where the security I’d longed for--in family, in identity, in relationships and career--unraveled, leaving me feeling untethered, over and over again. I returned to writing my memoir around the same time my friend and writing coach, Theo Nester, gifted me with a collage she made with a photo of me and my grandma in a tight embrace at the center. There’s a wild story about that collage, but more on that later. I propped up the collage on my bookshelf and have since had my grandmother’s reassuring gaze on me daily. Weeks passed and the Iranian Revolution of 2022 erupted when Mahsa Amini was killed on (date), cracking open the hearts of most Iranians having been emotionally, mentally, and for many, physically held hostage 43 years.
In 1974, my father moved us from Iran to the US. I was a thread ripped out of the essential design of a tight-knit, elaborate Nain rug. My first great untethering. My extended family of over 20 aunts and uncles and grandparents who had raised me would now be thousands of miles way, no longer in my day to day. While yy mother and father worked full-time when we lived in Iran, my central parent figure had been my grandmother.
As long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to create my own family. I've been trying to patch that rug all my life. I was 6 when my father asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up and I blurted with unhinged joy: “Pregnant!” The horror on his face had me edit my answer to a random: ‘Opera singer.’ I wanted my own space and place of belonging, a family that moved in tandem, safe, intact. I ached for it. What arrived was never-ending new beginnings and unimagined untetherings: Country, Identity, Marriage, Career, Home. Life is a wild ride, destination unknown. I wanted to control my immediate surroundings and developed some OCD-like habits that I pretended ensured my family members wouldn’t blow up during the 7-year Iran-Iraq war. I later learned during my mom’s year and a half hospital stay, that, I in fact, have no control over events and all I could was to be present.
In 1974, I arrived at SFO with my parents. At first sight of Daly City and its yellow rolling hills, I thought we were in India having heard my dad’s stories from his time at University of Delhi. It al felt out of context. Why we moved. How we had arrived. Where we landed. My parents. Myself. Looking back, how bewildered, alone and hopeful they must have felt. Untethered as well, they were immigrants whose lives would forever change in a handful of years. The plan had been to return to the loving, colorful commotion of our huge Iranian family after my dad’s studies. We would never live in Iran again. Our house on Kooyeh Bayani street, the lace curtains blowing in the wind, the walled all-rose garden.
By 1978, I had swapped the sun dress, white crocheted shawl and dressy sandals that my mom first sent me to school in for a danskin bodysuit and jeans. I flew from rung to rung on the monkey bars in the playground. I played soccer, baseball and lacrosse and ultimate frisbee and tennis. Star Wars exploded onto the scene. I was in ESL English classes with Mr. Small in the small back room of a classroom. He gave me the creeps. I loved my teachers at Escondido Elementary school. I felt ‘exotic’ to Americans who asked about Persian kittens, beluga caviar, rugs and Iran’s oil.
I was pretty Americanized that year when my mother, brother and I returned to Iran for 6 months while my dad finished his PhD dissertation, before the 1979 revolution. I was back with my grandmother, a woman of tall stature and equanimity and a solid bearing. Clear memories of bikini-clad women on Pahlavi beach, snow ball fights, Nowruz in the mountains, my uncle’s large and glorious wedding. My brother and I falling through the ice in our matching American coats in my grandparents’ mini ‘pool.’ Overdosed on pomegranate and “akhteh” and tangy fruit leather.
I remember the throng of women gathered in front of the mosques, ravens dressed from head to toe in black chadors. Covered almost entirely. I asked my grandmother to outfit me with my own chador. She showed me how to keep it closed. I was curious. None of the women in my family wore them. But you had to wear one in order to enter the mosque. That image of the throng of ravens would haunt me for years and the mullah’s disapproving look when I smiled during a service, and so ashamed I peed my pants. I remember my intuition saying spirituality shouldn’t feel this bad. Why did men hate women so much? These questions sat on my chest.
Not long after our return the 1979 revolution happened. Jimmy Carter helped Khomeini come out of exile. It seemed not a single thing would remain the same. The image of women standing about like a throng of ravens would soon become the norm. Women would cover themselves up or be punished. I heard stories of women being handcuffed to corpses for exposing a strand of hair. Beaten also for smiling on the street. And a woman now had half the value of a man, by law. I remember with distinct clarity that I was ashamed of being a woman. I did a cartwheel before heading to a football game and felt something in my underwear. Having my period felt like a funeral. The death of the free-spirited girl who felt equal to her friends, mostly boys. And so for me it felt like centrifugal force was pulling everything that made sense apart. So then what keeps us tethered? And to what? Why do men hate women so much?
Shortly after, the Iran-Iraq war continued on, extended by arms dealers who made a killing off the war and my having Iran and Iraq occupied fighting each other.
As an Americanized kid, I was usually out all day playing basketball, tennis, softball or soccer. My friends were mostly boys and I loved feeling like one of the guys. But after that cartwheel, and after having figured out on my own what the hell was happening to my body, I had a momentary realization that now I would never be one of the guys and our paths would diverge from what I was allowed to do.
More seismic untetherings would arrive almost every decade of my life until I learned to turn the tide around. One of the biggest on my 30th birthday and U.S citizenship celebration. Decades long process of unraveling helped me understand that the tether I feared most, was different from what I’d imagined. That the very act of being untethered returned my freedom to me, brought me home to myself to allow never-ending new beginnings and a new threshold of personal renaissance. The tethers were more dangerous than the reeling. Stepping into the unknown. Writing now, with boxes packed, divorce on the horizon, a new chapter. I write this as I sit in my living room.