For more than 20 years, Atiya Abdelmalik, a dynamic, inspirational speaker, has promoted health, wellness, service, and hope. She is a registered nurse who inspires women worldwide with her personal story of triumph over illness and loss, which is detailed in her upcoming book, A Life Worth Saving: A Nurse’s Journey from Sickness to Healing.
Our editor-in-chief, Dr. Shellie Hipsky, sat with Abdelmalik to discuss her strength through difficult times in her life and how she is uplifting and inspiring others to live life to its fullest.
What profound experience had the most impact on your life?
If you live long enough, you’re going to experience some things, and some people go through challenges and hardships and tragedies, and you have different paths to take, right? You can either say, “I’m going to ball up and hide from the world. I’m going to stop living, because the pain of living is greater than the beauty of living,” or you can say, “I was never promised a pain free existence.”
I have a choice to say that my story, the journey that I’m going through is not for me alone. Maybe somebody else needs to know what it looks like on the other side of grace, what it looks like on the other side of pain, what it looks like to rise back up after you’ve fallen over and over and over again.
I have experienced painful moments: life threatening illnesses and the loss of my son, which are the most devastating experiences of my life. Then I watched my parents lose their son. All of this loss can take you into a deep, dark place, and I made a commitment that I would do what they can no longer do, and that’s live, and that is what inspires me to keep getting up over and over again, to keep moving, to make sure that I am a living example of what it means to not just survive. I’m not trying to just survive this pain. I’m trying to thrive in spite of it, and I’m trying to use what I’ve gone through to help somebody keep moving through what they’re going through.
How does a mother pick herself up after such a tragedy? How do you go on, and how do you continue to give back instead of getting frustrated and angered?
The first thing is that I’m human, so I feel all those things. Eight years later, I still get frustrated. I still get angry. Today I felt guilt. I still get overwhelmed with grief.
I remember years ago, a woman asked me, “When did you get over the loss of your son?” I used to hold people hostage for their response or their ignorance or just not knowing, because losing a child is something you can’t articulate. No one can experience what that feels like unless they’ve gone through it. That’s how deep that pain is.
So I used to wonder what is wrong with people. Who gets over the loss of their child? But by the time she asked me this, I had already realized that I can’t expect people to understand, especially if they have not journeyed that path, so I need to extend grace. So my response to her was a question. I said, “Can you tell me what about my life caused you to think that I had gotten over the loss?”
She said, “Because when I’m around you and I watch you love on people and laugh and smile and deposit into others like nobody’s business, I can’t imagine being able to do that after losing a child.” And I said to her, “That’s grace.”
Those thorns are in me every single day, and my faith has been so strong that no one has to convince me that something higher is pushing me forward and holding me. The people around me are the most love filled and peace filled people on the face of the earth.
The title of my book is A Life Worth Saving. Every single day, I fight for my life. So what she saw in me was someone who decided not to give up, but I have to fight every day to move through.
Not everybody gets over everything, so sometimes I have a little attitude with people who say, “You need to get over it. He died eight years ago. Why are you still crying?”
We have to change the dialogue and the message. We’re telling people that they have no right to continue feeling the way they feel. It’s often said that the depth of your love equals the depth of the pain. I don’t know a greater love than a love of bringing another human being into the world. So I lost the greatest love, and I won’t get over it, but through the grace of God, I’m moving through it.
“EVERY SINGLE DAY, I FIGHT FOR MY LIFE.”
Atiya, you said the word “grace” multiple times today. Can you talk a little more about “grace”?
My book is about grace. It is about having grace for myself, being able to forgive myself, because you feel like you failed. You failed raising a child. You failed saving a child. You feel this unforgiveness. And “grace” is the ultimate in forgiveness. It means that I love you, regardless, that I will forgive you over and over again. If we had a mindset of grace, we would have so much more love in the world.
What would you say to the mother of an angel? To a mother who lost a child like you did?
I would say the same thing that my girlfriend’s patient said to her. When I was balled up in a corner and I didn’t want to live or forgive, and I was in the deepest darkest place, my girlfriend’s patient was dying.
She was not old. But she was driving the car for her two children, in Pittsburgh, when they were on a newspaper route. They were in the back seat. Someone hit her and took off the back of the car and killed her only two children. After that, she was dying a long, spiritual death. That spiritual decay debilitated her physically, emotionally, spiritually, mentally.
My girlfriend said to her, “I don’t know how to help my girlfriend. How do you help someone who lost their child? I can’t even wrap my head around that. I don’t know what to say,” and the woman said to her, “Tell your girlfriend to just to keep living.”
When I’m in my deepest, darkest place, I say to myself, I have to honor this existence because my son is no longer able to do that. The highest honor you can give your son or your daughter or your loved one, is to say, “I’m going to ride this out. I’m going to make you proud, because, darn it, if you are smiling down at me, I’m going to give you something to smile about!”
Oh, Atiya, those are beautiful, beautiful words of wisdom. Please tell me about your serious health issues and how you coped with them.
Back in 1999, I was diagnosed with a very severe kidney disease called “focal glomerular sclerosis,” and my doctor told me that within five years, I would be on dialysis and a transplant list. I had two treatment options. I’m a nurse, so I knew the side effects very well. I was worried about the medication, but I chose what I thought was the lesser of the two evils. Fast forward, I started taking the medication. I ended up in an intensive care unit fighting for my life, and I was diagnosed with steroid induced diabetes on top of the kidney disease!
Diabetes ravages your organs. It attacks your kidneys and mine were already compromised by kidney disease, so it didn’t look good.
It was just one diagnosis after the next. The next thing was high blood pressure. So I was really looking at my end. And, again, I held a great pity party. It lasted for a minute, and then I realized that I really had the power to save my life. And even if I don’t, I’m going to die trying. I’m not going to sit here and allow the diseases to take over.
I completed the Dr. Dean Ornish Program for Reversing Heart Disease. That program didn’t just change my life—it literally saved my life. The program is a non-invasive medical treatment that has been proven to reverse heart disease. It’s about your lifestyle.
When you talk about well-being, it’s what I’m eating, how much I am exercising, stress management, and something that has the most incredible healing power—social connectedness.
When people survive heart attacks or they survive major surgery, the folks who have support at home, the folks who have people visiting them, the folks who are going to strong knit families, those people live longer. So there’s incredible healing power in being connected to people.
In 1999 they gave me five years. Now it’s 2017, and my kidney function is better. I have progressive, aggressive diseases, and I’m healthier today. I even look like a different person. I look like I’ve tapped into the fountain of youth. In older pictures of me, you saw the sickness.
So it really is lifestyle. We don’t give ourselves enough power to change our lives. I know changing behavior is hard, but you can by internalizing just how much power you have to make different decisions and how those different decisions create different outcomes. It is not a perfect science for me, but I go by this 80/20 rule: 80 percent of the time, I’m doing what I need to do because my lifestyle is my medicine. It’s my drug. 20 percent of the time, I eat what I want to eat and drink what I want to drink. That formula has basically saved my life, and it has allowed me to live a healthier life, despite living with these conditions for 18 years.
How would you describe your life journey?
The first sentence of one of the chapters in my book starts off with, “The journey isn’t a straight line.” It is crooked. It has detours. It has windy paths. It’s filled with mountains, and mountains have experiences, and deep valley experiences, but it’s a path worth taking. That journey cultivated the best part of who I am. It has cultivated strength. It has cultivated that grace that I keep talking about.
I don’t take breath for granted. When I wake up, I’m happy, for the most part. I don’t feel good every day. Those 18 years of conditions are in my body. They’re real. They hurt me sometimes. I don’t feel great. I have been doubly blessed because of the blessings, the beauty.
I don’t expect perfection in the journey. I can’t expect it, because every time I turn around, there’s something else. There’s a loss. There’s a condition. There’s a family issue. There’s trauma in the world, but now it’s not expecting it. I just ask for grace to move through it. My motto is “A life worth saving,” and so is yours. I want every single person reading Inspiring Lives Magazine to truly believe that, no matter what, their lives are worth saving.