The Guiding Light of a North Star:
Interview with Habiba Jessica Zaman
By Carin Chea
Within mere minutes of speaking with professional trauma counselor Habiba Jessica Zaman, I understood why her private practice was called North Star of Georgia Counseling.
Zaman, a seasoned therapist and writer, is nothing short of being a soul whisperer. Gifted with what can only be described as a superpower, Zaman is most effective at helping people heal, but only because she has the ability to see and understand the nuances of pain within others.
This is no exaggeration: A chronic headache I had been struggling with for 48 hours dissipated in the first 10 minutes of being in Zaman's presence.
Fortunately for us (and at exactly the right time as we re-integrate ourselves into society) the soul whisperer is a prolific writer whose books can help us navigate through our messes.
Tell us about your background.
I'm Bangladeshi-American. My grandparents are from Bangladesh and my birth mother is Caucasian. I was born here, then I spent 6 or 7 years in Bangladesh with my grandparents, along with all my cousins.
There were children constantly running around and playing. Growing up, my father thought that was going to be the best thing for me. I was very much loved. I had a lot of cousins to play with. I came here when I was 8 years old and I've been here since.
How was the transition back to the United States?
It was a strange transition. I grew up with 2 of my uncles living in the same household. We don't call our cousins "cousins;" we call them brothers and sisters.
My father would come visit as much as he could. He was going to school here [in the U.S.] and trying to establish himself here so that things would be solid when he brought me over since he and my mother had divorced by then.
It was a lonely transition. I left behind the closest people to me up until that point. But, it was also a fairy tale because in Bangladesh, I was always wondering, "where are my parents?" So, when I came back, I also felt like I was returning home.
And how did you get into the field of counseling?
I was a counselor from birth. I would always feel people. I am definitely an empath. Do you believe in empaths?
I absolutely do.
I could deeply embody things I couldn't understand at that point as a child. I could feel deep connections to people. I was the advocate: I was the family advocate, the neighborhood advocate, I would fight injustice - and I was 5 years old.
The difference is, I have the words for it now. What I knew and felt and sensed then, I just have the terminology for it now.
Feeling so invested in that world, I was always curious as to what made people do what they did. Why do people think and behave and choose what they did? And part of that was from me too: My parents were divorced. I didn't know my birth mother and I didn't' know why. I wondered why I didn't have my parents.
I chose counseling ultimately because of my school counselor, Mrs. Bunch. She was this tiny, tiny old woman. I mean, she might not have been very old; when you're that age, someone who's 40 might seem old.
But, anyway, I was in the 8th grade. It was a dark moment in my life. I had never spoken to her, but I had known of her. It was a tiny school in Avery, Texas.
I was walking down the hallway and she grabbed my arm. She just paused and I was freaking out. She took my hair and she tucked it behind my ears so she could see my face, and she looked into my eyes and she said: "Whatever it is won't matter in 5 years. None of this will matter. Just hold on for a while longer."
I was dumbfounded because I had been seen. I had spent so much time trying to be unseen and she just saw me. Whatever superpower she had, I wanted. And that's what I became.
As a counselor, how has COVID-19 changed the landscape of therapy?
It has allowed therapists as a whole to realize that we're not bound to the office. I've done tele-health before for years, so the transition wasn't difficult for me. We realize that you can be just as empathic and vibrant and effective over any kind of media. It doesn't have to be face-to-face.
Even on the phone, there are things you can pick up on. I can still notice and interpret their pause, or their catch of breath. I can feel their energy. There are moments where I can feel, for example, a spike in anxiety.
We can still connect with people if we can open ourselves up to it. COVID has helped us enlarge in that way.
You are a prolific writer with extensive experience in professional counseling. What inspired you to write your first book, Beautifully Bare, Undeniably You?
It was unexpected. When I started my private practice, I ran empowerment and trauma groups for women, just for fun. It was volunteer and free of charge. It was a free space to be a woman in any capacity - straight women, trans women, mothers, women who didn't want to be mothers.
One of my colleagues I had met at a training was Shalon Irving. She was a part of the group as well. We were very similar. Her degrees were in public health, but she had a fierce desire to change the world in a mass level. Mine was on an individual level.
After a couple of these groups, she asked me to be her life coach. Afterwards, Shalon said, "You're going to write a book because what you're doing with me, no one has ever done with me in 15 years of therapy."
We laughed, but believe it or not, she harassed me for 2 years about that. She would come to my sessions, sit outside the lobby, and wait for me. She said, "We're doing this." About a year after her harassment, I said, "Fine. But, I can't write." She said, "You don't have to. Just talk to me, and I'll write."
My focus is trauma. One of the things that is lost when someone experiences trauma is their sense of self. That's my focus with every client: "Why you do what you do, why you behave the way you do?"
A lot of times, we're living out our narratives, and we think it's ours. But it's not. It's a narrative that other people have written for us.
It was very much a sisterhood collaboration. There are song lyrics at the beginning of every chapter. Music has always been a big part of my life. It has always been how I process my feelings and emotions. It was a way of untangling my thoughts.
We finished it 2017 and now I'm on number 8.
Shalon didn't get to see the book be published. We finished the manuscript the day before she gave birth. Her daughter was born January 3 (is which my birthday) and she passed away 3 weeks later. Shalon and her leaving me was the biggest reason why this book was published.
What would you like your readers to take away from your writing?
All of my writing, whether it's my blogs or the articles I've written or my books, they're all written in a way where it feels you're reading someone's diary. It's a window into the human condition and what makes us human.
I want people to see a side of me that they haven't been able to see in themselves.
I've had a very difficult time accepting and loving myself for who I am, accepting the existence that I've had until now. There's a reason why I've chosen trauma. I want my readers and clients to have an acceptance of themselves. We spent so much time judging where we've been. I refuse to let my clients sit there.
One of the lessons I like to follow is: No matter how far down a path we've gone down, we can always turn around. We're not trapped in these images and narratives. The decisions we made back then were a result of who we used to be, but we're not that now. We can move towards where we want to be.
Are there any upcoming works you'd like us to know about?
I'm in the middle of a solo book. It's nearly finished and it's called Learning to Love. It's going to follow the same modality as Beautifully Bare.
I like these books because they are empowerment books. I like to give readers something to do. So many of these empowerment books tell us that we have to love ourselves before we can love others. But, how? They never tell us how.
Something I incorporate is the "how." I come up with techniques and direct questions to explore, answer, and work through. Learning to Love is more so learning about why you love the way you do.
To follow Habiba Jessica Zaman's journey, please visit www.HabibaZaman.com.
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