Sometimes success is breaking out of a maladaptive survival technique. Sometimes it is denouncing a stereotype. Sometimes it is correcting ourselves over time and becoming better for it. To me, success is invariably a phenomenon that brings a positive chemical change in us . The highlights of my life aren’t about career, children, marriage or material accumulations. The things that spring forth when I count my successes are the chemical changes that have helped me be free of restrictive thinking.
So if you look at it really, success is easy to achieve but acknowledging success is hard. Acknowledging slow transformational success is hard because we have been shown success in just one light. That it’s going to be overnight, will be associated with something ground breaking and will be marked on a certain day on our calendar, at a specific time.
But after years of chasing it and ultimately realizing that it was right there all along has made me realize that success can sometimes happen in a subtle, nonchalant way. It usually is more prevalent than failure but because it’s so easy to weave itself in our lives without receiving the recognition that failure receives, it sometimes blends into the background.
My success story is very unthrilling but totally worth telling for our subset that deals with special needs and makes tough decisions everyday.
When I graduated from medical school, I wanted to practice in a large tertiary care center in Karachi and be at the cutting edge of medical research and technology. So you can imagine how thrilled I was when I was proposed by someone who would take me to North America and where I could potentially have the chance of practicing medicine on the biggest scale possible. I had always been a good enough student to expect good things from me in the future too. Many women get married for reasons besides companionship. My top two reasons were a marital relationship and a chance to go into training, fellowship and medical academics with no quintessential “you can do that after you get married”.
Getting into an American residency proved to be easier than I had thought. I gave birth when I was in my first year of residency. I had everything mapped out for post-residency training. I was going to apply into a fellowship of my choice and if I didn’t get that the first year then I was going to do a year of chief residency and apply the year after.
The best laid plans! My daughter was diagnosed with autism when I was a third year medical resident. We were told that her challenges were huge and she may never be able to live independently. Devastating is an understatement. I saw my whole world collapsing and then some. The demands of my residency with a child who was just diagnosed with autism put all plans on hold. I couldn’t focus on anything for months, the grief was so intense. When I finally did come out of my fog I talked to my faculty advisor. He asked me to take a year of chief regardless and try to make up my mind about how a fellowship, which is essentially another training, would fit with the needs of my family.
I decided to take a year of chief. I couldn’t help feeling sorry for myself at how my aspirations and plans were getting revised. I hated how life wanted me to make tough choices and how this wasn’t what I wanted.
One of my good friends, seeing how blue I was, recommended that I apply for a fellowship anyway. Her theory was that getting into a fellowship is so hard and when you won’t get it, you won’t feel so bad and might embrace fate more gracefully.
Believe it or not, I got the fellowship. I couldn’t believe it. I became sick at the thought of leaving my lifetime wish behind because I couldn’t take up another training with all the therapies my daughter needed.
Sometimes life makes you hate it. It was one of those moments.
However, not going into another training program had one unnoticed upside. I had loads of time to be with my daughter. I went to all her therapies and because I’m a good study, I aced all the therapies. I learned about autism like it was my fellowship. I would travel for lectures and see a new doctor almost every month. I’m sure that there is not one autism specialist in New York City who hasn’t seen me and my child.
I became obsessed with autism and its therapies and my daughter’s progress just like I had been obsessed with a residency and fellowship.
I did so many online behavioral courses for autistics that I was given free membership to some very exclusive training programs. And this wasn’t it! I was approached to do a workshop on guilt and burnout in mothers of special needs. When I went for the workshop, eighty percent of the women were physicians. I was kinda surprised and elated that I was actually involved in physician education of some sort, even if not directly medical education.
After my chief year, I applied for a fellowship again but continued to look for jobs as an internist. Adnan, my husband, knew how much I ached to be in a training program. He told me that if I wanted to continue training then he would make it work, even if it took ten nannies. We told our current nanny that we might need her for another three or four years. Shamshad was more than happy to spend more time with Minha.
While all this was going on, my once nonverbal daughter was starting to put simple words together into sentences. She was starting to dress herself and feed herself. She was 4 but functioning at the level of a 2 year old. You’d think it was progress if I told you that just two years before this she was 2 and functioned at the level of an 8 month old. Our work was showing. She was no longer the anxious kid that she used to be . She wasn’t hugely social compared to before but could sit in company. It was gratifying and affirming that our hard work was paying off. It felt so good to be achieving something that everyone had said would be very hard to achieve for her.
Fellowship results came out and I was also offered a job by an amazing institution that was very exclusive in choosing its academic internists, the people who train their residents. I got the fellowship again. It’s really a miracle but it happened. But my heart was in something else. My heart was completely into doing what benefitted by family and at the moment, my daughter needed me.
I gave up the fellowship, took a position as an internist and moved to Delaware. Here, I found another niche for myself. I started looking into behavioral models and their impact on developmental delays. I went to classes, lectures, workshops, paid people to coach me privately on behavioral therapies. I would sit through hours and hours of my daughter’s own therapy sessions and learn and absorb. I worked with her nonstop. And then I taught the skills to people in my community and at Minha’s school.
I slowly started to get my first taste of subtle, nonchalant success.
I became an admin on a group for physician mothers with children with special needs. We are six women with an autism connection and have become each other’s sounding boards and shoulders to cry on. And there are thousands of women on the group, some who are starting their special needs journey and some who are finally seeing light at the end of the tunnel.
I started my own special needs Facebook page with a different intent. To bring therapy to Pakistani families, show them how to feel empowered like people empowered me. How to help our children ourselves and enjoy the fruits of our own hard labor. Our children are our labor of love. Children with special needs are sometimes more so.
People sometimes say “Why do you do these things on social media? Anyone can go to a therapist and get the answers. Why do you have to private message and private chat with them and talk to them?”. I don’t have an answer to that. I don’t do it because I feel any obligation to anyone. I’m not that great a person. I have enough on my plate and my community would be well-advised to help me, instead of asking for my help so there is no self-service there . Why I do it is to have other women and families feel a sense of success and empowerment and thereby validating my success.
Success comes in simple forms. Like when your child learns to ride a bike, or write her name, or hug her brother without having a meltdown from this highly sensory experience. It took me many years to see my success but once I started seeing it, it was everywhere.
Success can not be ignored and it’s always more than failure. It’s just very gentle in its feel and affirming in its energy. Whenever anyone thinks they’re failing, I ask them to think what they’re succeeding at. And they always, invariably, start to see success only. It changes their whole outlook. 💕