Another workday came to an end. No sooner had I sat in the car than on turned the waterworks. Again? Why?
We immigrated to America when I was seventeen. Having stayed through the revolution and Iran/Iraq war, the only reason my parents uprooted our lives was to ensure a good education for their children.
Iranians, at least when I was growing up, viewed women as second-class citizens, weak, unless they were their daughters. Their daughter was to attain a respectable degree: doctor or engineer, get married, be an exemplary wife and mother whose home is showcased in House Beautiful every year.
My father, a vocal subscriber to said philosophy, is as subtle as a freight train. “Your math teacher is a woman? No wonder you haven’t learned the right way.” Or, “Argh, broads never learn how to drive.” Thus, I developed a fierce internal tug of war. I wanted to prove everybody (especially dad) wrong, yet win his approval.
In America, I chose dentistry, an uninteresting field, but hey, it would put a doctor in front of my name and allow time for the House-beautiful home plus kids. Besides, one chose a job to make money, not to feel good.
The first two years entailed basic sciences. By the third year those dreaded pearly whites showed up, inflicting upon me a severe case of tight sphincters with each procedure. To relieve the discomfort I decided to specialize. Oral and maxillofacial surgery seemed a good choice. It involved facial bones and soft tissues. Furthermore, it was a male-dominated field I needed to dominate. Only, OMFS had the longest, most difficult residency, and hardest for women to get into. One program hadn’t accepted a woman in seventeen years. I entered ours as the only woman.
One night on-call, I noticed a porn magazine in our hospital room. While flipping through, a section titled, “chicks with dicks,” piqued my interest. It brought on the giggles, but what a powerful metaphor for whom I had become to succeed in this field. I finished the program a cocky surgeon, making a comfortable living with shop-till-you drop Wednesdays plus tremendous prestige.
That’s why that Thursday in private practice, especially after yesterday’s productive retail therapy, the tears didn’t make sense. They were unbecoming of a chick with a dick, really.
Maybe I needed a break.
To clear my head, I travelled to a wellness resort. The pictures on the website didn’t hold a candle to the reality of the ranch. This place was a festival of senses: 3000 acres of beautifully manicured gardens in the skirts of mount Kuchumaa welcomed the visitors. Wild flowers embraced serene bronze sculptures, the grandeur of the mountain called to the strength within. Birds sang in perfect harmony. Yoga and dance replaced weights and kickboxing. On a crisp cool morning it brought me to the labyrinth. A gentle breeze nipped at my arms and dinged a chime hanging at its entrance. Slowly, I stepped onto the path. Mourning doves cooed in a distance, leaves rustled. Out of nowhere a question came: what do you want?
Dumbfounded, I ignored it and kept walking. After a few steps it arose again. By the third time a hushed voice deep inside whispered:
I don’t want to be an oral surgeon.
What? Said the chick-with-a-dick. You went to school for twenty-four years. What about school loans? Yet something inside decided to hear it out, hear me out.
Ok. What do you want?
I want to travel.
Tell stories. Inspire others.
No more information came.
I tucked away the experience and returned to work, only started spending less. Six months later, in the middle of a workday I began feeling severe pain in the center of my chest, the same area the whispered voice had originated from. It became progressively worse until I collapsed and was taken to the emergency room in shock. Lying on the hospital bed I decided to resign.
Life changed drastically after leaving. It went from want-based to purely need-based, top one percent income to bottom one percent, organic produce to discounted ones, weekly shopping sprees to none for a year, with one splurge: my best-of-Boston hairstylist. Airlines used to wave change fees for Doctor Anooshahr. Ms. Anooshahr received no contingencies. Dr. A was generous with friends, bought them gifts, paid for meals out, never charged them for procedures. Ms. A couldn’t afford favors. Doctor visits changed too. Physicians pay more attention to other physicians than storytellers. Lastly, family members are more likely to understand your work when you leave the house to bring home a paycheck. They have a hard time being supportive when work happens inside the house, even harder when you put in long hours with little return to build your new career.
But when the choice is yours, you’ll accept the consequences.
My boss said: “You’ll regret leaving.”
A friend said he wished he could do the same, in front of me, then turned his index finger in a circle at his temple behind my back, adding: “Loco.”
Dad wondered about general dentistry, the field I had escaped.
Mom crushed me with her truth later: “You really hurt me when you left oral surgery.”
A year later my first essay was published. Two years later, I did my first public speaking.
With oral surgery I had arrived at the peak. An Iranian womanrose to high levels in a male-dominated field. I was the poster child for the immigrant success story and a role model for women’s rights to boot. Now, I had thrown it all away for a foolish pipedream of an artist. To most, this was my failure.
But my failure was not leaving a successful career. It was hard charging to the top of a mountain, fighting tooth and nail to get there, only to realize I was on the wrong mountain. My failure was becoming the best at who I wasn’t. It was ignoring the truth of my heart, the sound of my own voice, that of a storyteller, writer, and artist who may not succeed, or get respect from my community, or make a killing.
My failure was not having the courage to be me, sooner.