“Loneliness can be conquered only by those who can bear solitude.”
—Paul Tillich, The Eternal Now
Blaring radio scanners and bright lights rattled me awake. I felt
someone shaking me and yelling, “Nadia! Nadia! Wake up!”
Barely able to open my eyes, I could see paramedics hovering
over me. “Hey, Nadia, talk to me! What did you take?” one EMT
shouted. I remained dazed. They took my vitals, bandaged my wrist,
and strapped me to a gurney. Carrying me down the stairs and into
the ambulance, they whisked me away to the hospital.
I was only vaguely conscious when they rolled me into that cold
emergency room. The glaring lights and familiar sounds of hospital
commotion reminded me that I’d been through this before. Oh, God,
I hope they don’t pump my stomach. The cacophony of medical voices
over me blurred in confusion. I didn’t want to be there. I didn’t want
to see anyone. But after the ordeal of being questioned, poked, and
needled, a psychiatrist came to interrogate me.
“Hello, I’m Dr. Caruso. How are you feeling?” he said with a
“How do you think I feel? I feel like crap. My life is crap.”
“Why do you say that?” he asked.
“I can’t have kids, my husband’s a thief, my career’s going nowhere,
and I got turned down for food stamps.”
“Is that why you tried to kill yourself?”
“What? No! I just—I was just trying to relax. I was stressed out,”
“Why did you cut yourself?” he asked.
“Because I wanted to stop hurting.”
Due to the dangers of mixing alcohol and cyclobenzaprine, the
crisis team advised that I be admitted to the ICU.
The next morning, the psychiatrist looked at me and said, “I
strongly suggest that you be admitted to Vanderbilt Psychiatric
“Why do I need to go there?” I asked.
“They can do more assessment to try to help you, but you’ll have
to agree to it,” he said.
“Okay, I’ll go, I guess.” An ambulance transferred me to Vanderbilt,
but as soon as I arrived, I began to panic inside. Another hospitalization?
The other times hadn’t worked. What makes you think this time
anything will change?
Meanwhile, Mom had been on the road since early that morning,
driving three hundred miles to get to Vanderbilt.
When she arrived I pleaded with her, fearing that she’d override
my sensibilities and convince me to be admitted.
“Mom, I can’t stay here. I just want to go home,” I told her.
“Let’s see what the doctor says,” she replied. A psychiatrist sat and
talked with Mom and me.
I told him, “Look, I’ve changed my mind about being admitted.
I just had a bad night, that’s all. I’ll be okay. My mom’s here. I’ll be
“Okay, but, your discharge evaluation from Dr. Caruso noted,”
he said as he flipped through papers, “Impression was bipolar disorder,
type II rapid cycling, axis II borderline personality traits. That’s some
“I know, but I’ll make an appointment to see Dr. Caruso. I
He glanced up at me from his reading. “Borderline Personality
Disorder is a serious illness. It says here you stopped taking your
antidepressant medication. Why?”
“I quit taking it a year ago, because I’ve been trying to get pregnant,”
I said, my voice trailing off. Looking down, I mumbled, “I
guess last night, the anguish of my infertility penetrated my heart.”
Mom spoke up. “I’ll be here in Nashville for as long as she
Reluctant to release me, he nevertheless agreed, saying, “Well,
you do seem to be pretty high functioning.”
On the drive home, Mom asked, “What happened last night that
things got so bad?”
“I talked to Dad yesterday, and it just made things worse.”
“Why? What did he say?”
“I told him, ‘Dad, I’m miserable with Badeel. He’s nothing but
a liar and a thief. I want a divorce,’ but then he yelled, ‘Oh no! You
married him—you stay with him!’ I guess that’s his way of saying that
I’ve made my bed and I should lie in it.” Mom had seen his blistering
remarks maintain the wall between my desperate struggle for his love
and approval and his Arab culture and tyrannical personality. Dad’s
brilliant mind helped him overcome great adversity as an immigrant
to America to achieve success in earning a PhD in his third language.
He eventually reached the top of his field as an economic advisor. But
brain power aside, he lacked an ability to be consistently nurturing.
The minute he would show any compassion or tenderness, I’d eagerly
respond by letting down my guard, only to be suddenly leveled by his
dark emotions that surfaced as quickly as his sweet side had appeared.
As I was pouring out my heart to Mom, she said, “I’m sorry. I
know how harsh he can be.”
“Yeah, I know you do,” I said in a sympathetic tone, fully realizing
that all my life she’d been the light to his darkness, and he’d been the
shadow to her light.
Strongly empathic and kindhearted, Mom continued listening as
I vented about my broken life.
“Did I tell you about the dreams I’ve been having?” I asked.
“No, I don’t think so.”
“I’ve had this same nightmare, over and over. In it, I’m getting
married, feeling so much in love, but just before walking down the
aisle, I say, ‘Oh my God, I’m already married!’ and then suddenly
“I’m sorry, honey. I know it’s been hard,” she said.
Mom went on to comment in her characteristically positive way,
“You’ve just finished recording your CD, so that should give you
The monumental creative effort she was referring to—years of
work that I’d just completed—should have made me joyful. But the
deep, soul-penetrating anguish of my childless, disappointing marriage
had siphoned the strength out of me. Hoping to find refuge in
Dad when I’d called him, I had instead encountered his resentment
toward me for ‘not producing me a grandchild,’ as he put it, adding
another layer of misery as I sank into a hole of engulfing despair and
“Honey, I know you’ve had a lot to deal with all at once,” she said.
“Yeah, well, on top of everything else, after that sexual harassment
nightmare at work, Badeel got angry with me because I hadn’t
reported it. When I did, my boss bullied me. So, I had to quit.”
“You did the right thing, honey. Something else will come along,”
“And you know how hard Christmas is for me. All that expectation
to be merry and bright,” I said sarcastically. “Anyhow, Badeel
stays gone a lot. I was feeling lonely. I drank a beer, but I got more
depressed and then drank a bottle of red wine. I started crying uncontrollably,
so I took a couple of muscle relaxers to calm down. I just
wanted to go to sleep. If I’d really wanted to kill myself, I would have
taken the whole bottle.”
“But, honey, why were you cutting your wrist?”
“I couldn’t stop crying. I just wanted to stop the pain. But then
the phone rang, and it was you,” I told her.
“Well, I’d been praying for you, because I felt something was
wrong,” she said in a solemn tone. “After you and I hung up, I called
for an ambulance.”
A few days later, I followed-up with Dr. Caruso, the hospital
psychiatrist. After a couple of sessions, he confirmed a diagnosis of
borderline personality disorder.
“The diagnosis is evident from your bouts of severe depression
and previous suicide attempts,” he explained.
“You also need to know that alcohol increases your risk for suicide,”
“I didn’t try to kill myself, okay? I was stressed. I just wanted to
go to sleep.” He looked like he didn’t believe me. “I also think you’ve
I immediately frowned and shot back, “What are you talking
about? My parents never abandoned me.”
But Dr. Caruso was on to something. In that moment, I was
unable to recall a traumatic childhood event. Years later, however, I
came to see he’d been correct. It was not until writing this memoir
that I began to see what Dr. Caruso understood: an abandonment
experience had triggered my BPD. Since the childhood trauma had
been so severe, my brain refused to recall those wounding memories.
Mom, however, would go through life, more than once telling me
her part of the story—events that I later confirmed in old letters I
found. But Mom never knew to call it abandonment, because in her
mind, she hadn’t abandoned me.
The trauma occurred after our family moved to Iraq when I was
five. The State Department appointed Dad as a Fulbright professor of
economics in the program that placed American academics in foreign
universities. We got Baghdad.
One year after that move, the four of us traveled by car from Iraq
to Lebanon to spend the summer with Dad’s family. It was the second
time in my life that I’d met any of Dad’s relatives, all of whom spoke
no English, and I, no Arabic.
One night in Beirut, a disturbance erupted. Crammed in my uncle
Nasri’s small apartment, Mom, my brother, and I were sleeping, when
suddenly, we were roused awake by a thundering uproar of shouting
that came bellowing through the walls.
“You had to marry a Christian?” one uncle demanded of Dad.
“You have to forget this nonsense of living in America and staying
married to that woman!” another one railed.
“Listen, you need to divorce this one. Send her back to America,”
another bellowed. My uncles’ treacherous scheme for our small family
included Dad marrying the Shi’ite woman they’d picked out for him
and raising my brother and me as Muslims.
That restless night spilled over into morning when a telegram
arrived for Mom.
“Oh no. Daddy’s had a massive heart attack,” Mom read to Dad.
“I need to go home, but I hate leaving you and the children. What
should I do?”
Dad told her, “The kids will be fine. Go ahead and go.” He bought
her a ticket to North Carolina.
During part of that summer, Dad was also away, so my older
brother Sami and I were left in the care of our uncle Nasri with whom
we’d previously spent very little time. A few weeks later, Sami and I
were sent to Dad’s secluded mountain village to stay with his sister
Asma, a stranger to me who spoke no English. While in her care, I
became deathly ill with a high fever that she allowed to persist for ten
days. I cried and cried for Mom, and I couldn’t understand why she
wasn’t there to care for me. Aside from being sick, having no common
language with my assumed caregivers overwhelmed me with feelings
of isolation and abandonment.
Meanwhile, in North Carolina with her family, Mom felt tormented
over leaving me and Sami in Beirut. She often woke in the
night, trembling in a cold sweat, hearing the word religion over and
over in her mind. She believed these disturbing episodes indicated a
spiritual struggle over my life and Sami’s.
Two months later, Mom came back to Lebanon. She was shocked
to see my condition. Dark circles from lack of sleep encased my eyes.
I’d lost so much weight after that ten-day spiked fever that Mom
described me as painfully thin. From the moment she returned, I
talked a blue streak, slept with her, and hardly left her side. Deeply
hurt that she hadn’t been there when I’d been so sick, I told her that
I’d felt lonesome and afraid. Mom had always lovingly cared for me.
Managing my long, naturally curly hair had been our mother-daughter
bonding ritual, but while she was away, my aunt had cut it all off.
Being six years old in a foreign country, with a language barrier,
separated from my mother and father, and becoming deathly ill created
a deep, psychic abandonment wound. The intense emotions of
abandonment and the feelings of fear and anxiety it produced triggered
adverse biochemical changes in my developing brain that set
the stage for a lifetime of feelings of deep insecurity and a constant
yearning for human connection that never quite materialized.