Healing Broken HeARTs
A local program helps domestic violence survivors develop ways to mend their souls.
The day Aazam Irilian realized she stopped smiling was the day she decided to change her world – she just didn’t know how yet. Her mother had recently succumbed to a painful battle with cancer, and her job as an arts educator was taking up so much of her energy that she had little left for anything else. As she reached a level of professional success that should have brought her great joy, Aazam instead felt drained from the journey and disappointed with the lack of passion and challenge left in her career’s future. She wasn’t quite clinically depressed, but she hadn’t noticed when the smiles stopped either. She missed the joy of a fulfilling life, and she missed the art that used to help her express that life.
“Art and creating are my passions, something that feeds my soul,” Aazam said, “but I didn’t have time to engage in that anymore. Nothing was enough or satisfying. When you get to that place, it impacts your point of view of yourself, and I became my own worst enemy.”
Soon a new position fell in her lap – like the job was written just for her. But she was terrified.
“I was paralyzed by the fear of moving because I was in a safe place, even though it was so stressful,” she said.
Aazam saw the opportunity as a reminder that the universe has its own plan, and she jumped on her dream job. She quickly knew she had made the right choice – the choice to believe in herself, to choose herself. Even better, she had time for art again.
“Slowly, I started using the creative process to heal myself,” she said. “I wasn’t creating for the purpose of exhibiting because all I wanted was to express myself, my emotions.”
She grew artistically and professionally. Her family and friends caught notice. And soon, she felt fulfilled and whole again.
“I knew I needed to bring this to other women,” Aazam said. “As women, we put ourselves on the bottom of our own list. We diminish ourselves and fade into the background as we put others’ needs ahead of our own.
“All my life I tried to teach my children they don’t have to give up on their dreams to be who they are or meet their responsibilities,” she continued. “And I wanted women to understand that they don’t have to put themselves on the backburner either. You can have it all without an unhealthy amount of stress.”
When people put their dreams on hold, she explained, they develop resentment toward the people they sacrifice for.
“You’re not doing anyone justice,” she said. “You’re the only one who knows what’s right for you.”
Enlivened by her own fulfillment, Aazam decided to do something extraordinary. She gathered the tools that helped her find happiness and put them together in one program, and just like that, Heal the HeART was born. Led by Aazam, Heal the HeART offers several different themed workshops, from stress management to discovering your purpose. Each course uses a combination of creative modalities – breathing, visualizations, writing, art and conversation in a safe environment – to help women understand themselves better and walk away with usable tools. With three-hour weekly sessions, each workshop takes place over the course of six weeks.
While Aazam has found plenty of fulfillment in watching other women benefit from the same path she chose, she quickly found another way to spread the healing. Today, Aazam partners with the Domestic Violence Center of Santa Clarita Valley to provide a free workshop specifically designed for survivors of domestic violence. The center’s executive director, Linda Davies, works with Aazam to choose clients who are already
on their way toward recovery, women who are ready to take on the emotional work of healing their souls.
“Emotional wounds don’t heal as easily as physical wounds,” Aazam said. “But it took one meeting for the group to be able to voice how they were feeling, to feel safe.”
The domestic violence survivor program is different from the others because Aazam added a mentorship element. Each survivor is paired up with a mentor from the community, a partner who will support her on this journey for years to come. At the start of each workshop, Aazam puts out a call for women who want to make a difference in the lives of other women.
“We all have something to learn from each other and from our shared experiences,” she said. “Every time I walked into the group, I couldn’t tell who was the mentor and who was the mentee. People attract who they need to attract, and we meet those who we need to meet.”
And boy was she right. Mentor Sue Hayward and Mentee Jane clicked together like destiny. Jane came to group after years of abuse and debilitating fear. And Sue was waiting with open arms.
“My husband tried to kill me four times,” Jane recalled of her worst years. “And yet we beat ourselves up. I should have known. I should have seen this. I could have left. But people don’t realize how dangerous and severe the situation is. Emotionally, it tears us down to the point where we can’t move; we’re paralyzed by fear.”
One day, when Jane was in her bedroom, her husband grabbed her by the hair and held her close as he threatened her with a pair of scissors, eventually cutting her hair as a punishment. From that day on, Jane couldn’t bring herself to wear her hair down. So on the first day of the workshop, Jane walked in, hair up and ready to heal the wounds.
“There were a lot of things I didn’t realize I hadn’t come to terms with – facing those things you pushed aside,” Jane recalled of her lessons throughout the process. “Sometimes the classes would take us back to a place we didn’t want to go, but you have to pull it up and dissect it to bury it. Or it’s always going to hurt.”
Turned toward Jane, Sue listened intently, holding Jane’s hand as she told her story. Even now, they supported each other, relied on each other. Their bond was as second nature as it was immediately apparent.
“We’ve been laughing on the floor, and we’ve also been crying together,” Sue said of their time in the workshop.
“It’s like you shed something every time you leave,” Jane said. “For me, it gave me back the strength and confidence I had lost. After a while, I wasn’t this scared, shaky person anymore. Being able to take control of my life again, for myself and my kids, was such a victory.”
“You did a 360, not even a 180,” Sue said, looking straight into her eyes. “You may have even done two.”
The day Jane walked into a workshop with her hair down, the entire group cheered. It was clear from watching the two that Jane was now happy, and that made Sue happy, too. Together, they had come full circle, or as they call it – turned into butterflies.
“She’s my biggest cheerleader,” Jane said. “When you know you have a strong support system, when it’s genuine and open and honest, we quit struggling to break out of that cocoon and just do it. And when we do, we become butterflies. Our mentors get to watch us go from these very broken people to, all of a sudden, coming back to life.”
Today Jane has a new job, with a recent promotion, that makes her happy and allows her to support her family. As part of the program – and also completely by choice – Jane and Sue see each other often, to ensure accountability and support. The fear and pain never truly go away, Jane said, but her fellow butterfly isn’t going anywhere either.
“I thank my Sue. I thank Aazam, and I thank all the other ladies who were there with us,” Jane said. “Everyone needs some kind of healing, and this process is life-changing.”
To find out more about Heal the HeART, please visit www.healtheheart.com or contact [email protected]