A few days ago I received a message on my new, underdeveloped Tumblr account. I clicked on the username and was immediately led to a series of updates along the lines of “I’m so fat/ugly, I hate myself,” “I have so much pain, I don’t know how to make it stop,” “Bye, if I don’t reblog or like anything for some days, I’m probably dead,” thankfully followed by a more recent one that simply read “I’m back”. Now these updates appeared to belong to a perfectly normal, sweet young Muslim girl. I got back to her message privately but she never responded, and given my Tumblr Illiteracy (almost as severe as my Instagram one) I do not know how to find her blog again. I really hope she is doing fine.
So yes; depression. It is a quite sad topic but I think it deserves some attention in our community. And given that I know first-hand what depression means and how it feels on the body, being asked by several friends how I managed to get over it myself, I will share my own experience and insights.
Where do we start? With positivity; I’ve been completely depression-free for a good 7 years or so. Naturally, I have my ups and downs just like any normal person out there, but the ups are big, long lasting boosts, and the downs are few and far between. They also only last for some hours at a time, so I really can’t complain. I like to say I’m cured of the illness.
Indeed, depression is the loneliest of illnesses. It doesn’t leave a mark, it just fills the carrier with intangible emptiness that no one but oneself can detect. Perhaps that is why so many share dramatic updates on social media and/or cut themselves; they just want to be seen and heard, to have their pain acknowledged; it is a call for help before it is too late. Yet many dismiss them as attention hungry or not really serious – seriously though, are they serious only when they proceed to actually kill themselves?
Back to me. I was 17-18-19, waking up every day to go to work at a makeup store. To me, that was depressing in itself. I worked with something I detested, I had no defined goal in life, I was stuck in a marriage without a future, and I was not utilizing a single talent I had. These things may very well seem like mere first-world problems to you, but I’m recounting only the latter, lighter stage of depression. Things had indeed been much worse.. So I’d wake up in the weekends (those that I had off of work, anyway) and just stay in bed wondering whether there’d ever been more to life. My existence felt so meaningless; so empty. There were some trips abroad that made me feel temporarily alive and happy, but once wrapped up and back to the real world, I was truly miserable and unhappy.
I made a change one day. Well, it was gradual, but it started with a simple mind exercise. I considered the possibility of living a whole life in the position I was currently in. I deemed it unfeasible; I had to make a move. So I picked up the little I had of self-confidence and independence and decided to follow my dreams to the place that had made me the happiest up to that particular point in time. I decided to escape to Cairo. To a place where I did not feel so different, despite not having fluency in Arabic. To a spot where I could start anew. I went partly for a reason that seems rather crazy in hindsight; I wanted to become an actress cause acting was what I loved doing (more on that later; my “career” only resulted in a tea commercial, before putting on the hijab unexpectedly some weeks later after Ramadan). It wasn’t all a head-over-heels kind of follow-your-dream moment, however. I did have a back-up. Alongside scrambling to get a divorce in the very days before I left, I also signed up to take 4-5 high school exams that December. I had a secret dream of becoming a professor of political science as well at one point in my life.
Life in Cairo was really something else. I did not have the right contacts to pursue acting immediately, and I did not even have a high school diploma to base any kind of resume on. Fortunately, as indicated in the previous sentence, Egypt is all about contacts, and someone I knew fixed an interview with the “boss” of a small recruitment company the Cairo suburb I resided in. I use boss rather than any other word, just because the man was what you would call a true boss in the old fashioned sense of the word. I’ll keep it at that, but I got the job. Which meant a six-day work week and 12+ working hours a day. On an Egyptian salary, yo!
This new situation was possibly even more stressful than the one I had previously found myself in, but at least I had a sense of agency; of accomplishment. I could take major life decisions, and I had the guts to carry it through! Despite slaving at the office and sleeping till one on my only day off, I slowly started healing myself. After half a year I returned to do my exams. I had not gotten the books shipped down, and so I started the readings a couple of days before the first appointment. These were oral exams, where you speak about the given topic and then get asked questions by the two teachers administrating the session. It was quite daunting, especially without the right amount of preparation. My first subject was history, and I was unlucky enough to draw the topic that concerned me the least; the American civil war. I rushed through the 20 minute preparation period, presented with the confidence only a good actress can pretend to have, and left the room. A few minutes later, I was called back to the room. “So Imaan….. What are you planning to do with your life,” inquired the oldest of the two male high school teachers in a rather intimidating tone. Of course, it was very much out of the question to respond with actress or anything along those lines, so I answered with my unfinished, underdeveloped alternative dream. “Professor… I want to become a professor. I want to read, write, and talk about stuff I love,” I said with the same fake confidence utilized for all it was worth earlier on. “Very well,” the man retorted, somewhat more promisingly. “I hope you go ahead and do that. This is the best exam I’ve seen in my 30 retorted years of doing this”.
Although that incident naturally gave me a confidence boost, I won’t lie and say all the rest of the exams were just as great. I did not prepare for most, but managed to pass sometimes with top grades, sometimes with a little less. Most importantly, however, I had started to believe I could. I can. I can really do this. I went back to Egypt for some more months, before quitting my job on the spot in a daring move after having had enough of being pushed around. I left Egypt again to finish up my exams and make money for my studies. I had decided; I was to become a professor. This is my grand goal, and that is the path to getting there. Those are the less enjoyable things I have to undertake to get there. And at this point, ladies; my depression was history.
What useful things can we take out of this individual experience of mine? There are quite a few. Number one; leave the things that make you miserable. I know it is easier said than done; for once, my ex-husband made me think I could never get married again after having a divorce. However, it is a most necessary step. Chances may be daunting to grab, but they are also truly liberating. Yes, you may fail, but the old trite about at least trying still holds true. There was a point where I really had no idea about how to pay the rent and deposit for an apartment, but in the end it solved itself, hard work and some desperation included. So quit that job, get out of that place. Create your own happiness.
Second, and this ties into the first one; follow your dream, no matter how unattainable it seems. I wanted to become an actress in Cairo and that is pretty crazy itself, considering my lack of wasta and questionable language skills. Yet it brought me there; it fully served its purpose. Following my dream – even if I failed or the dream itself changed – empowered me. A second point and a half is to have a backup, however. Mine was finishing up exams in order to one day attend AUC. As a side note, the AUC thing did not work out either, but that was only because I found a better option.
Another crucial thing is perspective. When one is depressed, it is day in and day out of the same gray reality. Change the way you view the world, and the world will be a truly different place. Have a goal in life; a direction or long-term perspective that helps you tolerate the many less interesting or stressful moments in life. My overreaching goal became the professorship. It seemed so far away when signing up for my first high school exams (and it still is), but if one incorporates milestones of smaller goals along the road, it will make everything much more attainable. I first hoped to get through one exam, then the whole round of exam, then all the high school exams in order to get a diploma. Then it was college. Getting through the first semester was one thing, after which I cruised through the two years in no time. I knew where I was headed for. Grad school is the same thing, albeit far more challenging. Have a goal.
A thing which didn’t shine through in this story but that nevertheless is important is surrounding yourself with positivity. Ditch your frenemy, the one that will never offer a nod of approval or an even veiled compliment. The one who, if you were in trouble, would be nowhere to be found. The one who give you bad vibes; the one who talks about you behind your back. You don’t need her. You need a sole focus on yourself to get through a depression and so even if this friendship goes back to early childhood, you must root out the negativity from your life. Surround yourself with positive people, who, even if a little superficially at times, are generous with compliments. Wallah, that IS just what you need. Of course, having friends who tell you the truth rather than just what you want to hear is a true gift, but you need to avoid negative, sad people.
Build yourself. There’s no one successful method of doing this; it varies greatly from person to person. No matter how you choose to deal with it, you need to take actions that lead to you loving yourself. Really, self-love is that crucial. I’m not suggesting egoism, I’m simply saying that apart from for the obvious providers of unconditional love (i.e. your mother, siblings), it is really difficult to love a person who doesn’t love herself. Get a hobby – something you know you’re good at – which can give you a sense of accomplishment. Scribble five great things about yourself in a notebook in the morning, or note down one good thing you accomplished or did the previous day in the same book at night. Team up with a friend and share between you empowering words about each other’s qualities.
Talk to God. Some of you may not be believers, but having someone listen to your complaints, hopes, and dreams can be really effective. Know that some higher power is out there watching over you, and that you are never alone. Make a lot of dua’, and similarly, when things are better, remember to be thankful for it.
Lastly – and this is a point my roomie added as the good social worker she is – seek professional help. You may need someone to talk to outside of your community who is more tangible than God. I did not take this route because I tend to be more of a DIY-person, but I recognize its potential for people in different situations. It is not a shame; it just shows that you’re taking control of your own destiny by not letting yourself dwell in the gutter. For some people, this may even be the very first step to take.
I realize there are so many things I’ve missed here, but I’d be happy if this reaches and is helpful for just one other girl out there who may be struggling. Please do share your thoughts and add points in the comment field if you have any. Below is the outfit of the day.
Scarf: Urban Outfitters, faux fur: Boohoo, boho army jacket: River Island, oversized shirt: Gina Tricot (Norway), pleated maxi skirt: Urban Outfitters, bag: mom’s closet, shoes: Club Aldo (Egypt), accessories: Norway, New Look, Forever21