It Took My Mom's Illness To Wake Me Up From My Fashion-Girl Dream

Photo: Courtesy of Amina Akhtar.
Me in a Bentley at Fashion Week a few years back. I liked the car better than the shows.
“You coming to my client’s appointment? I’ll give you free shoes!”

I shook my head and emailed back that I couldn’t make it, but thanks for the invite. I was “simplifying.” That’s my response to invitations these days. “Thank you, but no. I’m in the midst of simplifying.” Somehow, the answer makes sense to publicists.

It isn’t a lie; it’s just me avoiding a more honest explanation for why I’m opting out. And in some ways, it’s true: I don’t need more shoes, even free ones. I just gave away half of the ones I already own, including an amazing pair of pink suede Miu Mius. Because what I’m looking for these days, I’m not going to find at a fashion event. My real reaction to the invite? I can’t handle going to your party, because I’m burnt out and coming out of the fog of grief and have no idea what I’d be doing there. Yeah, “simplifying” sounds much better.

I started working in fashion in 1999 and I’ve been going to industry parties — and collecting my gift bag — for years since. It was fun! I loved being in fashion because I loved shiny, pretty things. They made me feel good. If something in my life wasn’t going right (a crappy romance, being broke again, not feeling thin enough), I bought something to make me feel better — on credit, of course. Fashion and shopping, and the glamour of it all, made my troubles go away. It was as simple as that. I remember when a magazine I worked for threw a party, I ran to Barneys to buy a gorgeous pair of Marc Jacobs metallic heels just for that night. It was shallow and fun and completely wasteful. It was everything I wanted to be.

Pretty things filled the voids in my life: I had no real personal life, my friends were too busy working as hard as I was to spend any quality time together, and my family was thousands of miles away. I loved (and hated) fiercely committing to my jobs, feeling stressed out, and being a drama queen. But I never handled stress well, and all the long nights and weekends required by the early days of digital began to take a toll. I managed to ignore the signs: the exhaustion, the illnesses, the migraines. On weekends, I couldn’t get off the sofa. But still I worked like an idiot and didn’t exercise enough, eat well, or meditate. My dad — a psychiatrist who saw what was happening to me — would caution me to take it easy, to hit the gym. I just laughed.

As in most tales about a ridiculously shallow person, it all came crashing down one day — but not in the way I was expecting. When I was 33, my mother was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer. The worst of the worst of the cancers. And I felt the world stop. My mother, who used to make my clothes for me. Whose jewelry I’d played with. Whose Mary Kay makeup was too pale for me, so my made-up face always looked like a zombie. (She hated that.)

When I was a young girl, my mother would take me shopping whenever I took sick days, fever be damned. She started me on the path of using fashion as a feel-good remedy, and she was so thrilled when I got my first real job in the industry as an assistant at Vogue. Over the years, whenever I started hating a job, or wanted to quit, it was my mother who kept me going. I loved making her proud of me — hearing her brag to her friends in Texas that I was a fashion editor, watching her put my business cards on the fridge. She once came to New York and threatened to beat up my boss for making me work too hard. I’m 99% sure she was joking, but then she did have a black belt in karate. My mother was my reason for everything. And now I was losing her.

I remember sitting at a resort show in New York in 2011. I had been working at a small startup website, and my mom had just been diagnosed. I scored a seat in the second row, and as I watched the clothes come out, my anxiety started to rise. I wasn’t usually prone to panic attacks, and here I was having one in front of everyone. What the hell was I doing at a fashion show when my mom was sick? Who cared about all this? I had to get out of there, to run.
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Photo: Courtesy of Amina Akhtar.
A major regret in life is that I didn't gett my mom’s cheekbones. But I did manage to make her laugh from a young age, until I became a horrible teenager.
I flew home soon after, and offered to move in with my mother to help care for her. She wouldn’t hear of it. She wanted me to keep working so she could brag to her nurses at chemo. She wanted me to be happy, and she knew I wouldn’t be at home with my parents. So I kept working. I moved to a higher-profile job and threw myself into it to distract myself, while every night I’d go home and cry. If I went out, I drank too much. "Hot mess" didn’t begin to describe me. My boss let me work from my parents’ house every other month for a week, but I could never shake the feeling that I was choosing my job over my mother.

My mom lasted two years — much longer than we thought she would. She and I grew closer than I thought we ever could, and said all the things we’d been holding back for years: the regrets, the wishes, how much we loved each other. I had never been an easy kid. I was stubborn, domineering, and selfish — not what she expected in a girl. Pakistani girls were supposed to do what their parents wanted, to obey and listen. I did everything but. I shaved my head and moved across the country for college, putting distance between me and my parents. I refused to ever get married (and I’m still single!) and wanted nothing to do with my culture.

It took years for me to learn that my parents and I were more alike than I realized. We were all stubborn and insisted on getting our way, but had different ways of going about it. I never understood why my college-educated mother wanted to move to the U.S. just to marry and raise kids. When she got sick, we talked about how scary it must have been to move here. (“Didn’t you ever watch Lifetime? What if this strange man you married tried to kill you?!” She just laughed.) I apologized for how rotten I was as a teenager. She loved me despite it all. But I still wish I had more time with her.

When she finally passed, I sank to the floor of the hospital, unable to get up. It was over, she was gone. And at that moment, I knew I wasn’t the same. That’s the thing: You don’t get over the death of someone that close to you, you just change. There’s a hole in you where that person was, and you learn to live with it. Days after her funeral, I was so sick I couldn’t get out of bed. My dad kept watch over me, but my body gave up from stress. My temperature dropped to 96°F for days.

The two-and-a-half years since then have been difficult. I’m not the same person I was, for better or worse. I don’t enjoy going out as much. Physically, I’m exhausted. The burnout I was headed toward? Destination reached. Just going to lunch with someone is enough to wipe me out for the rest of the day. My headaches occur daily; when I get sick, my temperature drops to weird numbers, and my doctors never believe it. I finally got the ulcer I always joked I was getting. The anti-depressants I was on while my mom was sick made me gain 30 pounds , and the weight won’t come off. I wish there were some place I could go to get zapped full of energy again. Invites to events fill me with dread — all that mingling is so draining. I’ll try to be positive and say I’m going, only to bail at the last minute. And I know my friends are tired of me saying, “I’m tired.” So instead, I say I’m simplifying.
Photo: Courtesy of Amina Akhtar.
The one thing that cheers me up these days? Beanie, my dog. I got her to help get me through my mom’s illness, and she’s a godsend. And really cute.
Two-and-a-half years may seem like a long time to grieve. It would to me, too, if I hadn’t gone through it. I don’t cry every day — hell, I don’t remember the last time I cried, which is progress. The sharp pain of her not being here isn’t as intense. And I realize that, for my friends and colleagues, waiting for me to get to this point has been frustrating. I’ve lost touch with a lot of people who didn’t know how to talk to me anymore. I don’t blame them; my circle of friends is smaller, but more understanding.

I continued to work after my mom died, but my heart wasn’t in it anymore. At first, work was the thing that got me out of bed, so that was a relief. Then, it was that exhausting task that kept me from bed. When I got laid off from a job, I considered it a reprieve and spent time with my dad. I scanned family photos, went through my mother’s things, and kept reminding myself, “What would mom do?” I didn’t want to come back to New York, which didn’t feel like my home anymore. But I had to pick up the pieces. Life doesn’t stop because you want it to.

I still cover fashion and write about designers and people. But after a decade-plus of working my ass off, I’m taking it a little easy, working freelance, and that’s okay. For the first time in a long time, I’m writing just for me, which has helped me deal with everything — I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed it so much. I haven’t gone shopping in ages, I gave away half my shoes and bags when I moved to a smaller apartment, and I could really use a haircut. And let’s not talk about my lack of a manicure. But I’m focusing less on shopping and more on experiences: time with friends, a real vacation. Moments that matter.

When my mother died, my love for fashion went with her. Now, I’m trying to remember how much she loved other things, like cooking and exercise. The woman was obsessed with both. (She used to hit the gym with her chemo pack strapped on.) So in 2016, I’m hoping to do more of each. I’m making a big effort to take better care of myself, and one day I hope I find something that fills me with joy and excitement again. Until then, you’ll know where to find me: probably at home.

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