Cold Hands, Warm Heart

By Nina Riaz

Courage is committing to something and doing it despite the fear you feel. This is the first time that I am sharing my story publicly in print, and I am scared; but, this is a moment over 20 years in the making, perhaps more.

 Twenty years ago, I was in college and had a breakdown, resulting in my family dragging me to therapist after therapist until finally, there was one who I felt understood me, and I opened up to them.

I was sexually assaulted twice in college. I was diagnosed with PTSD and suffered from depression and anxiety. On top of it, I was found “gifted” and “highly sensitive” – which sounds elitist but in this context it means that my traumas impacted me more than it would the average person. Throughout therapy, residual traumas – bullying and abuse during childhood and through adulthood from various sources also surfaced and I had to deal with those, too.

I took to therapy quite well. I saw it like school, a place where I could better myself and learn new things. For the next 20 years, I went in and out of outpatient therapy, taking group classes like sexual assault victims classes and Dialectical Behavior Therapy (1) where I learned life-changing skills: how to manage emotions, express feelings, set and observe boundaries, handle trauma, and communicate healthily. 

I graduated college, two graduate schools and law school due to these new life skills.  In the back of my mind during all this time, I was asking the following questions of the world:

 Why do bad things happen to innocent beings like children and animals?

 What did I do to deserve such treatment?

 What drives people to do terrible things to each other?

Slowly, over time in a most synchronistic fashion, I received answers to my questions that, today, make up my worldview. Most of the time, those answers came from group therapy classes or my academic classes; other times, the answers came from a kind stranger who happened to say the perfect thing to me at the right time.

Let me explain my journey that led me to my worldview. It wasn’t easy and I was scared at first; it takes courage and strength to unpack one’s baggage and actually deal with it.  

I was introduced to a concept that took me a few months to understand, another few years to grasp and a final few years to embody – holding the dialectic – where you hold two seemingly opposing ideas as both true. No, it wasn’t fair that I was victimized repeatedly in life and it wasn’t my fault, and yes, I’m the one responsible for my life so I need to clean up the mess that someone else made in it.

In 2010, I stepped out of the traditional law and policy career route I was on and returned to graduate school where I concentrated on Philosophy, Cosmology and Consciousness, exploring the foundational depths of the psychology that was healing me.

Many newer psychological modalities utilize philosophical, religious or spiritual concepts such as the dialectic, non-dual awareness, mindfulness, meditation (or deep breathing / prayer depending on your worldview), compassion, empathy and forgiveness (2) They also emphasize how feelings relate to thoughts, which drive behavior, so I learned how to consciously break the cycle by intentionally choosing my thoughts (hence my worldview).

During the last arousal of residual traumas, which was just over a year ago – much less intense and shorter lasting than before due to all the work I had done – I experienced feelings of “pure dread” I recognized as a source of suicidal ideation. I broke the cycle by intentionally choosing my thoughts, beginning with the conscious recognition that, “this is a feeling,”, “it is dread,” and “this can drive one to suicidal thoughts.” I acknowledged it, held it, and let it pass. I never had the clinical suicidal ideation that would warrant a safety plan with someone (3) but I was able to note it to tap into empathy for others who do struggle with it – it really isn’t a rational thing; it feels more like a feeling or an energy.

The conscious awareness of this causation was not the only thing that helped me through it. I moved my body, meditated my mind, and regulated my breathing and physiology.  Everyday, I hiked for an hour in my backyard, meditated multiple times, and expressed emotions by crying, drawing, singing or writing. Sometimes I simply sat and held feelings that came to me until they went on their way. 

Soon, the feelings of dread abated and were replaced by feelings of freedom and utter joy. The freedom came from forgiveness; the joy, a reduction of othering. By then, my skills of forgiveness and compassion had been practiced enough that, within the shortest time yet in my life, I was able to forgive the last bully in my life and find compassion and understanding for him. 

In my earlier victims class, I learned that forgiveness has nothing to do with the perpetrator; it has everything to do with the victim. To forgive is not to condone; to forgive is not to forget. Forgiveness is to grant freedom and reclaim the power of the victim that the perpetrator stole by allowing the victim to be free of the echoing consequences of the horrific act. It means not ruminating on its unfairness, praying for revenge, or doling out blame. It means processing it in a way one can return to being fully present in one’s body and having total control over one’s life. By this time last year, I had forgiven all the acts up to that point – the abuses, the bullying, the assaults. To forgive this last bully was quite easy, because of the practice of forgiveness but also in part because I never let him take my power – I fought because I learned enough to see him for what he was.

What made it easier was a core aspect of my worldview that helps me reduce othering and welcome not only the stranger but the perpetrator. This aspect is the idea that we are all connected to each other, the earth, and everything in our reality. If that connection is true, it follows that to hurt someone else is to hurt oneself.

But why would we hurt ourselves?

A second core aspect of my worldview is that the driving factor behind many awful things is to learn (4). Without the bullying, abuse, and assaults, I wouldn’t have the skill of forgiveness today. I’d have never needed those classes and learned these things that today make my life full of wonder and limitless possibility.  True, I never would have had to experience “victim” consciousness because I’d never have been a victim. But then I’d also never have made the journey to become my own hero (5).

Now, I feel gratitude for the “perpetrators.” I’m grateful I had these experiences because they make me who I am today and who I am today has a superpower to take any darkness she finds herself in and turn it into a light that shines on in her life. That light shines on not only in my own life, but also in the lives I touch along the way. Clients in St. Louis and former students of mine in Oakland have benefited from my hard-earned experience as I’ve passed on these bits of light to them (6).

And turning darkness into light is a power no one will ever be able to take away.

I am not saying anyone can do anything to anyone, nor that this is carte blanche permission for chaos and destruction. It is not a “pass” on crimes or responsibility. Quite the contrary; it is about personal responsibility – taking responsibility for one’s own actions as well as the aftermath of things done to you. I have inflicted my share of pain onto this world and I have had to own those actions and find forgiveness for myself and compassion for the little girl who was acting out in cries for help. 

Accountability is the other side of the coin of empowerment. I control my life, and I am responsible for the aftermath of that which is done to me, that which I do, and that which I choose not to do. We tend to see responsibility as a burden but it is really simply a skill. It means “the ability to respond” (7).  When you are able to respond consciously and intentionally to the darkness in the world, it includes with it the power to do something with that darkness. How long will you sit in it? How long will you take it, withstand it, perhaps even punish yourself? What are you going to do with it?

I want to tell my former self, that young, innocent child, that –

Your skin is brown, yes, and it is beautiful. 

Your facial features are Persian and South Asian, and, yes, they are different, and they are beautiful.

Let go of wanting to be the other – the white skinned little girl with tiny features. Differences are the source of beauty in this world.

 I want to tell my former self, that college student, that –

You did nothing wrong. 

These were about taking your power and asserting their control. 

You will reclaim it and it will be more than it ever was before because you are going to transmute all that darkness in your life into light.

I want to tell everyone out there –

Those who have been bullied 

Those who have been assaulted

Those who have been victimized

Those who have been abused

Those who feel alone because they feel different –

 You are not alone.

You can get through this and create a life of your dreams.

It may not be easy, or fair, but it is doable. I am living proof of that.

So, I ask you again, what are you going to do with the darkness? As you ponder that question, is there anything I’ve written that strikes a chord in your heart? I ask for your support as I take these first steps trepidatiously, sharing my story with you here right now and later, quite publicly. If you happen to see me, and shake my hand afterwards, I apologize ahead of time – they will be freezing cold, which happens when I am nervous. I try to take refuge in the saying, “Cold hands, warm heart.”

My heart is warm, and after 20 years shut in the dark, I have found the courage to open it and let the world see the light within shine on. 



  1. DBT is a therapy modality developed by Dr. Marsha Linehan.
  2. DBT grew from CBT – Cognitive Behavior Therapy, which was founded by Dr. Aaron Beck. ACT – Acceptance and Commitment Therapy founded by Dr. Steven Hayes – is another offshoot of CBT and all 3 of these tend to the cycle of feelings-thoughts-behavior, adapting spiritual, philosophical and religious concepts.
  3. During my time at a community mental health center, I became clinically adept at identifying suicidal ideation and drafting safety plans for my clients. If you or anyone you know has signs of suicidal ideation, please go to the nearest emergency room or call 988 or 1-800-273-8255 to speak to someone on the National Suicide Prevention Hotline.
  4. See the lesson on “severe teachers” by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, for example. Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Ronald S. Miller, From Age-ing to Sage-ing: A Revolutionary Approach to Growing Older (New York: Grand Central Publishing, 1997). Connie Zweig, The Inner Work of Age: Shifting From Role to Soul (Rochester, Vermont: Park Street Press, 2021), 187, 209.
  5. My influences include Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero’s Journey” and Maureen Murdock’s adaptation of it, “The Heroine’s Journey”, as well as the work of Carl Jung.
  6. In St. Louis, Missouri, I worked for a community mental health center, and in Oakland, California, for the No Child Left Behind program. In both, I went into the homes of the most underprivileged in the area to help them with education and anything else they needed to better their lives. Currently, I have a private practice in St. Louis with a sliding scale: St. Louis Grief Recovery.
  7. Responsibility comes from the Latin root word “responsus,” which means “to respond”. 



Nina Riaz (she/her) is a member of the Missouri Bar, a graduate of St. Louis University School of Law, and she also holds Master’s degrees in International Relations from Webster University and in Philosophy and Religion from California Institute of Integral Studies. She served the public as legislative staff for Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) at the United States Senate and as an outreach worker in Oakland, California and St. Louis, Missouri. She has a private grief and loss practice, St. Louis Grief Recovery, where she guides people through the process of letting go.