Growing up in a conservative Albanian community in New York City, my life was heavily influenced by old world traditions. At the age of 17 I was placed into an arranged marriage with a man 10 years older than me. Although it wasn't an arranged marriage in the traditional sense, refusing my chosen suitor simply wasn't an option, so I married compliantly.
While many Albanian women and women from other cultures have thrived in an arranged marriage, this was not my experience. I'd lost my sense of individuality, as my persona as a woman was only reflective of who I married. It took a long time, nine years, to be exact, but I finally found the strength to stand on my own. After many voiceless years of letting others dictate my life, I finally left my husband. Thus, I began my new life.
In retrospect, there were four big picture actions that helped me propel my life, the life I'd always wanted for myself, post-divorce:
Facing reality: Thinking ahead and focusing on my new life was scary, but also liberating. Knowing I had support from friends, therapy, self-love and a sincere belief that there are better days ahead, helped me persevere. As fearful as I was to be on my own for the very first time, I was filled with excitement. Such things as paying rent on my own, purchasing my first car on my own and learning how to take care of myself without the help of others was extremely beneficial in my growth as an individual. I was so used to being taken care of by family and then my husband that I never realized what I truly meant to be a self-sufficient adult. Again, it was daunting, but I learned so much about myself throughout the process that in turn I was able to build much more confidence as a result.
Taking advantage of a clean slate: Living the way I wanted to live was the most empowering task I have ever accomplished. A fresh start can help you gain self-respect and take on opportunities that you would never have tried otherwise. This was my time to live my life on my terms. I felt a little selfish and so I struggled with the notion of going against my family's beliefs, but I knew that I wasn't doing anything wrong so I took advantage of whatever life could bring me. For example, I took up belly dancing lessons. Why? I thought, why not? I was never allowed to do things out of the ordinary, something different and so I thought this the time to do it. I then decided to learn how to play tennis. As a child, I never learned how to ride a bike or swim -- those are on my to-do list. However, sports were always forbidden because I was a girl and I would get hurt, my parents thought. I quickly learned how naturally athletic I am. I always worked out, so I had an idea of what my body and mind were capable of, but playing a real sport was a whole other "ball game." And guess what? I was actually pretty good. My backhands were pretty impressive. This also helped build my confidence.
Volunteering: To help myself heal, I created a small group called Women Empowered, which began as a casual gathering of women bonding over shared interests and fun activities such as volunteering. Supporting one another through rough times while helping others brought about a sense of wellbeing that I hadn't felt in years. I was brought up in a home where being hospitable was of utmost importance. We show we care through acts of kindness and so that always stayed with me. My language of love is doing things for others, whether it is through a relationship, friendship or volunteering my time at a local women's shelter. A lot of what Women Empowered does reflects the person I am. Many of the activities are thought of during sleepless nights or as I'm driving through the canyons of Los Angeles. Giving one's time and sharing one's heart is probably the most valuable thing you can give another.
Build a community: Life after divorce can feel isolating, especially if your friends or family don't agree with your decision, so try branching out to like-minded women. Since I didn't have the support from my family, I sought to create my own family so-to-speak through befriending women with similar experiences. Building these types of relationships and creating a community can help you feel supported throughout the healing process. There is a quote from Into the Wild that resonates with me and I believe is true: "Happiness is only real when shared." Sure, we come into the world alone and we die alone but in the meantime we should be sharing our life experiences, thoughts, and feelings with others. Relationships are everything to me, but only if they're healthy and mutual. I have had toxic friendships that I've had to let go of due to the negativity. You can't connect with everyone you come into contact with and that's okay. As cliché as this may sound, relationships are about quality over quantity. I've been extremely lucky that I've been able to befriend and connect with so many amazing people and I am forever grateful.