Who are you, in three words?
I am on a journey of trying to find the truth of who I am, so the first word that comes to mind is authentic. I always joke that I am“living authentically” when people ask how I’m doing but it is something I strive for. I also always try to see the humour in all things – bad or good – so humorous is another word that comes to mind. And my third word would be optimistic. Optimism has been my North Star and has helped me swim upstream in life.
How would those who love and respect you describe you?
My friends know that when they come to me they are going to get the truth delivered to them in a thoughtful way. They also know they are going to get humour, or at least some much needed levity.
What helps you feel safe?
My therapist. I had been seeing someone for nine years once or twice a week. I recently switched therapists, but both my previous therapist and new one have provided spaces that feel safe and help me stay aligned on my path.
Yoga. I used to do it a lot and then switched to working out in a gym, which I later realized was more for external validation and was me reacting to what I thought I was supposed to look like. Because of the pandemic I stopped that and have realized I prefer physical exercise that connects in amore intentional way with my heart and soul, so I’ve come back to yoga as a practice that I find sacred.
Food. I love to cook. I love to host. I love to feed… as in feed my partner Tyler. (We recently got engaged!) But yes, food and sharing that with those I love is an important part of what keeps me grounded.
Acupuncture. I started acupuncture recently. From a release-of-tension-held-in-the-body perspective, it is amazing. I have experienced massage, but find that massage feels fairly surface level compared to my experience of acupuncture. In the few sessions of acupuncture I have had, I have felt years of trauma and stress leave my body in a way that I have not felt before.
My dog. I have never had a pet before. Her name is Lola and she is the best thing that ever happened to me. I love being a dog parent and that whole relationship, and I also really appreciate the mutually beneficial space of being outside on our walks together.
Lastly, I’d say Movies. I am a big film buff. Joy for me, particularly when I’m alone or with one other person who really gets it, is watching a movie. I just watched Nomadland – a new movie with Frances McDormand. It’s actually a film about trauma. I have experienced a lot of death in the last few months, and this movie hit me in a way I was not expecting. It allowed me to grieve. It reminded me of the beauty and grace of film and how film can be such a transformative experience. I find film often puts words and visuals to feelings in a way I don’t get from any other art form.
I appreciate immensely the art forms and practices that support us with feeling what we need to feel or putting words to what we need to put words to. Elie, it sounds like you are incredibly in-tune with yourself and your needs. Seems like you have an innate capacity to allow that which needs to be grieved to be felt and moved through, and also that there are a few powerful resources that have really supported you in tapping into that quality of allowing. I often wonder if trauma that is held in our bodies is maybe just unresolved grief or grief that has not been allowed to be felt because it has not been safe enough to let it out. What’s your take?
I definitely think so. I had a nervous breakdown in 2012 that was a complete shock to my system and a reset of my perspective on life and grief. I grew up in Dubai in the Middle East – a very homophobic environment. I left and came to Canada in 2003, which was a huge cultural shock, but I hit the ground running and tried to make something of myself without considering my past at all. I think I only really started to truly explore who I am in my own skin and the path that got me here in the past ten years. I completely lost my mind in 2012 when someone I was in a toxic relationship with moved away. I had been in a few relationships previously that didn’t work out, and the grief or trauma that I felt every time a break-up happened contributed to me completely falling apart on a scale that seemed disproportionate to the circumstance I was actually in. I realized that I was grieving being bullied for years and years. I was grieving almost being kicked out of my parents’ house as a kid because they had discovered I was gay and they where/are very religious. There was a lot of trauma associated with my upbringing that I couldn’t make space for until it all came to the surface in 2012. At that point I started seeing a therapist twice a week. It took about two years for me to rewire my brain and soul to set me on a path to find my true self.
To echo what I said earlier about being optimistic, I think that part of my self-preservation is to always focus on the silver-lining of things to provide some hope, because so many situations I have been in have been hopeless, or I felt hopeless in them. I actually have IBS right now because I have gone through so many traumatic things over the last year; it seems things that need to come out are coming out through the body. Just in the past 12 months, I lost my job twice, the organization I worked for and cared for so much fell into shambles on national television, there was a big blast in Lebanon and I was scared my parents were going to die, and the pandemic has also put my parents in a very precarious, unsafe position. I lost five different family members within this timespan and all of this has culminated in my body, and specifically my gut, falling apart. It feels like one of those situations where the second I have overcome something, something else happens. I have had to realize that there is a possibility that life is just going to keep throwing these kinds of monumental shifts at me so this conversation is actually happening at a really interesting time. I’m becoming more conscious of my mindset in the midst of all of this trauma and have been asking myself, “how am I going to protect myself?” to manage this oncoming onslaught.
I would invite you to answer your own question with the awareness that, as you suggested, we can’t necessarily control external circumstances and life may throw things at as.
I am aware that even with all of the negative things that have happened and are happening in my life, I also now have the job of my dreams. I work at a film festival and love the team that I work with. I relish the work. In that realm, I am so full of joy and gratitude. I have never felt that way before with work. I have also gotten a dog, gotten engaged, saved money and been able to move certain other pieces of my life forward. Although parts are in turmoil, other parts are thriving. This quality can definitely help and is tied to that perpetual optimist part of me, but sometimes I can become focused on the thriving pieces of the picture to a fault, and that’s when the body is like, “yo, but there’s all of this stuff over here we haven’t processed or dealt with yet.” It’s a protective measure, but the dark stuff becomes de-prioritized.
What is trauma to you?
I am still figuring this out to be honest. There are times when I think I have psychologically processed traumas, but then I will discover that they are still somehow being held in the body. There are some obvious things – five people in my life dying in the span of six months is definitely traumatic.
I think as part of this conversation it is also important to name the pandemic and the global death that we are all experiencing. Everything from retail stores closing down and all the ‘For Lease’ signs we see popping up, to the countless lives lost. I don’t know how we are collectively going to process this trauma but I hope we do rather than rushing to “get back to normal”.
It feels vast. I am grateful we are having this conversation and I wonder if we wouldn’t be in an alternate non-pandemic reality.
There is definitely a revealing silence to the pandemic. After we’ve finished work, binged all our shows, read a book, eaten dinner and we are stuck at home with four more hours left before bedtime, it leaves space for reflection and the whispers of intuition and truth. I want to name also that this is a very privileged perspective because not everybody has had that space. There are people out there working their asses off more so than pre-pandemic. I saw a meme the other day that showed the lockdown experience of the upper-middle class as them sitting at home while the working class brings them things. That is kind of how it is and I think we are really lucky to be able to have this quiet and space because not everyone has had the same pandemic experience.
Thank you for naming that. I still don’t fully know how to be with that truth. I definitely see it as a calling and responsibility of those with greater privilege to not only make the most of that silent space, but to create and share space for others and give voice to truths and realities different from their/our own, and to listen.
I am wondering how suffering and awareness of suffering has at all contributed to allowing you to align with your own truth or calling.
I have been thinking a lot about the concept of being fully formed. I feel like I am constantly striving to get to the final version of myself. From a physical perspective, I have lost almost all of my hair over the past year; I finally stopped fighting it and it felt liberating to finally say,“ok, this is where I’m at.” This is a very superficial example, but I feel like trauma and suffering, if we embrace them as part of the journey and something that can be experienced and used, can be liberating too. Personally, I think it is so important to hold trauma or grief along with the joy. In the PIXAR movie Inside Out, which was actually written for the writer’s depressed daughter, the moral of the story is that all of our emotions are needed to create balance, which is essential. I feel as though I am trying to get to a place where I can hold sadness and can even appreciate it and see that it is giving the joy fuel. You know how when things are buried deep down, they eventually rot? That rot also ends up helping the soil and then growth comes out of that. That is an image I like to keep in mind.
So is this the process within you right now? Allowing for new growth out of the past pain.
Yes, I think so. It’s not a fully formed metaphor...
Will be ever be there? Can we be fully formed?
I think the most we can hope for is a solid 90 out of 100. Until our last breath, I hope we are never fully formed because then what is there to live for? When I think about fully formed, I think about it to the highest degree possible, in which there is still always room for growth.
Are there any last words or offerings as we close, specifically thinking about those who might be stuck in a great deal of pain or suffering right now?
Three words. Feel. Your. Feelings. I say this to my partner all the time. Feel your feelings! If you are sad, don’t do everything in the world to not feel sad. If you feel like shit, feel like shit. It is not going to last forever. The only way out is through.
Thank you for saying that. I find myself constantly course-correcting with this piece. I find sometimes it’s only after the fact I am able to go back and feel what needed to be felt. I think as living beings we have an inherent tendency to move away from pain rather than towards it. This is the work.
Just to close the loop on that, when you put your hand on something that burns – and if you don’t feel the pain – then you’ve just burned your hand off and you don’t have a functioning hand. You need to be alert and aware of where the pain is in order to deal with it.
Can we become grateful for all of it, even for the pain, because it is our teacher?
Yes. When I do my three gratitudes every Sunday (which I force my partner to do with me), they are not always all positive. Sometimes I am grateful for the things that suck, because there are so often teachings or new perspectives there.
Want to close this conversation with some gratitude?
Yupp. I am grateful for these gorgeous flowers that were gifted to my partner and I for our engagement. I am so, so grateful for my fiancé Tyler. Him and I just had a very intense weekend. I spent Saturday night bawling my eyes out in his arms in the kitchen, in a very cathartic way. I am so grateful to have that shoulder to cry on. I am grateful that I get another Monday to try again at life. There has been a lot of death and it has really put into perspective that this life is not forever, so I want to do everything I can today to make it count. I am grateful to be able to have this conversation with you.