“It’s as if they don’t exist”

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Image via www.thepressproject.gr

Summer has descended on Athens with a bang. After a transition period from spring into summer, where the weather flip-flopped so often the more organised among us gave up packing away our winter clothes, and the disorganised (me) felt smug that ours were still in a jumbled pile with all the rest of our ironing, the dragon of summer is here at last.

Temperatures have begun to soar in the city and with it, everyone is trying to find ways to stay cool. After my trip back home in March, I’m well armed with a colourful selection of crisp, cool cotton shalwar kameez  in bright colours. With temperatures of over 40C predicted for this weekend, they’re my outfit of choice as I to and fro through the city.

But I wish I could tell you that I wear them with carefree abandon, because I don’t. And the reason for this can be traced back to 2012, when the no-one-takes-them-seriously-they’re-kind-of-a-joke neo nazi party Golden Dawn were voted into parliament.

I had never felt unwelcome in Greece, or under threat. After that happened, I did.  I stopped feeling like I could wear whatever I wanted. I began avoiding eye contact. I didn’t want any trouble.

Eventually, I began to turn my point of view around, deciding that neo nazis were not going to stop me from being who I am. That’s not to say I’m fully confident in displaying that I’m different. On the metro this morning, sporting a deliciously cool blue and white bell-sleeved kameez, I didn’t look around. I read a book or stared at the floor.

Mostly, nothing happens. Sometimes I can’t tell if the looks are curious or hostile. Yesterday, a Greek lady at the seafront spent a good 15 minutes fussing over my son’s Eid shalwar kameez, saying how wonderful we both looked in our traditional clothes, and how pleased she was to see it.

Another time, wearing a bright yellow shalwar kameez with green patterns across it, I sat enjoying a coffee with my Greek husband, when the man at the next table began loudly talking about how the foreigners were to blame for everything. “We should find them where they sleep and burn them alive. We should destroy all their shops” he said to his friend. I wondered, had he noticed me sitting at the next table? I looked up. Oh yes, he had. He was looking directly at me as he made his little hate speech.

Obviously, this feeling of not feeling safe in the place you live is a completely new sensation for opposition leader, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who, in comments made in this article, said he fears for his safety because of left-wing terrorists:

“Opposition leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis of New Democracy blames Tsipras’ left-wing party, Syriza, for fomenting the anti-establishment hatred that he says is behind the attacks. He accuses the prime minister of failing to take adequate action to protect potential targets, including himself, if — as he confidently expects — he becomes the next Greek prime minister. The next general elections are scheduled for 2019.”

He goes on to make this astonishing claim, which is what first brought the piece to my attention via an angry tweet by journalist Yiannis Baboulias:

However, Mitsotakis played down the impact of Golden Dawn on Greek society, saying it was “so extreme and so vulgar” that it was marginalized. “It’s as if they don’t exist,” he said. “The violence has been almost exclusively from the left in recent years.”

I am stunned beyond words. For sure, Greece has a problem with left-wing anarchists and their strategy of delivering parcel bombs to Greek politicians, or leaving bombs in public places (which are usually called in before hand). Their destructive activity should not be played down.

But to dare to claim that nearly all the violence of recent years has come from anarchists, rather than from a murderous group of neo nazis, who killed, looted, burned and attacked with impunity because no Greek government took them seriously, is so outrageous it’s insulting. It’s not left-wing terrorists and their MPs who are currently in their second year of a trial for a long list of criminal activities, murder and attempted murder. It’s Golden Dawn, whose case file runs to over 30,000 pages long.

And I’m angry, because time and time again, no one in power in Greece has taken them seriously. They were left to run riot, until the murder of Pavlos Fyssas. I’m no fan of having molotovs whistle past my ear every now and then, or to see brand new metro stations smashed to pieces. But I’m much less of a fan of being stuck in a taxi and not knowing how to answer the question, “Where are you from?” because I don’t know what the motives of the person asking me are. I’m much less of a fan of the constant, low-level sensation that all visible foreigners have lived with since Golden Dawn’s rise that they could be anywhere, and you could provoke them just by being you. I’m lucky, because like I’ve said  in the past, I can vanish if needs be.

Mitsotakis said that Golden Dawn’s actions are so extreme and so vulgar it’s as if they don’t exist. This comment makes no sense. How can anyone say with a straight face that Golden Dawn’s actions had no impact on Greek society? How can anyone say that their black-shirted thugs and cult mentality didn’t at the very least embolden others who might have been leaning in their direction, but needed just another push?

How can anyone say that their actions and their existence did not impact Greek society, that they didn’t at least lead to some soul searching among ordinary Greeks about how things could have got so out of hand that a country once brutally oppressed by nazis now had neo nazis serving in parliament?

It would take exceptional short-sightedness to make this statement. It would take not seeing the depth of the problem that is Golden Dawn, or choosing not to see it, or choosing not to see the immigrants who – surprise, Mr Mitsotakis! – also live in Greece and love it and call it home.

So no, Mr Mitsotakis, it’s not as if Golden Dawn don’t exist. It’s as if WE don’t exist. By joining the ranks of Greek politicians who have constantly played down the threat of this group of neo-nazis, or in this case saying that the issue of left-wing anarchists is a more serious one, you might as well have walked up to me in the street and said that to my face. You might as well have told me it’s as if I don’t exist.

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Hot Pink Chicks

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via Business Insider

According to a 2015 report, poultry farming contributes around 1.3 % to Pakistan’s GDP annually since the advent of poultry farming in the 1960s. Chicken represents around 26.8% of meat production per annum. The industry employs around 1.5 million people across the country. In short, Pakistanis LOVE chicken!

Some chickens are bred for their meat, others for their eggs. For egg-laying chickens, the female ones are the ones which the industry prizes.

This leaves a problem. Million of fluffy little male chicks which are considered useless and destined for a quick death. The alternative presents itself in markets across Pakistan every spring – fluffy make chicks dyed hot pink, orange and green and sold as pets.

When I was little girl, you could either get natural yellow chicks or pink ones. Buying a few of these chicks each spring was a ritual for me and my sisters. We’d fuss over them and feed them grain, taking turns to watch over them when we’d let them out into the garden to forage for bugs.

As fun as it was, there was a lot of heartache involved. The chicks were not hardy. They’d start dying off for no reason. My vigils and prayers were useless. Crows would swoop down and snatch them from under our noses on their outings in the garden, or a cat would pounce during the few seconds we’d turned our backs.

It’s a short, sharp introduction to the circle of life for little children. I’ve shed countless tears and buried so many fluffy little chicks in my back garden, their little graves decorated with pistachio shells only to find a cat had turned up later and snatched the body. And yet, every spring we’d go back to the market for more chicks to do it all over again.

In all the years we did this, only one solitary chick every made it to adulthood. We coaxed him through colds and sniffles, warded off cats and crows and soon he grew into a fine rooster.

But raising him turned out to be a harsh lesson in parenting, because this rooster which we had all nurtured so lovingly into adulthood was the meanest, most vicious and completely ungrateful rooster I’d ever met. He was so diabolical that cats didn’t dare come near our yard because he’d attack them. We’d creep into the yard carrying a stick to ward him off when we had to go out to collect or put out laundry, because he’d attack our legs with such fury our shalwars would end up with holes. We’d all run screaming from him on more than one occasion. Eventually, we gave him away to a rooster fighter. I’m sure he had a dazzling career.

When we arrived in my village, I’d asked for a couple of those pink and orange chicks to be brought for my own kids to play with. And so it was as history repeated itself. Across 10 days, they fed them and played with them, collecting them back into their cage at night and watching them in the garden during the day. By the time we left them, their fluff had started to be replaced with proper wings. There were no assassinations by crows or cats. My kids got to live the glory of the hot pink chicks without the pain.

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Welcome to Pakistan

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It had been a very long day. Actually, it had been almost two days. I looked to my left and across the aisle I could see the twilight spreading across Multan below our airplane. It’s that hazy blue and orange, the light scattering from the dust in the air to create soft edges on everything, even the light itself. I don’t know if this dusk exists in other places too. I saw thousands of these dusks and never gave them a second thought until I couldn’t watch them on a whim any more.

An hour later, we’d arrived. The plane bumped onto the tarmac in the city where Alexander the Great is said to have met his fate with a poisoned arrow, and I turn to my kids who were prodding at the inflight entertainment screens and said “Welcome to Pakistan!”

The plan had come together spontaneously as most good plans do. I realised that my kids were now old enough for them to remember this trip, which happened at a time when I was getting really fed up with the kind of things I heard about Pakistan from the average Greek who had formed their opinions on the country based entirely on hysterical news reports and Europe’s growing Islamophobia.

Part of me wondered if it was me who was crazy and if I should go back and double check that the country really was so awful and I just didn’t know it. Faced with thoughtless comments about Pakistanis which were sometimes made in the presence of my children, I realised no matter what my own slightly confused relationship was with Pakistan, I alone was responsible for helping my children become acquainted with the other half of their heritage. “We’ll be gone for a couple of weeks,” I told my youngest son’s nursery teacher. “We’re going to Pakistan.”

She looked at me in alarm. Of course she would, Pakistan never makes it into Greek news unless something terrible happens there.

But she didn’t know about the winter evenings nestled under thick cotton blankets eating pine nuts still hot from the vendor’s cart, or the taste of sour village butter, or my hometown on the edge of a desert, the capital of a once-princely state ruled by nawabs, or the sticky, hot curls of jalebis that you couldn’t wait to taste as you peeled them off folds of newspaper.

It’s strange, because I’m not overly sentimental about the place I grew up. When my parents said we were moving to the UK, I was the only one of my sisters who was thrilled. I’ve moved countries twice now and don’t really feel like I belong anywhere, but having children and watching them reach an age where they ask their father about the places he went as a child and the things he did made me want to do the same. I found myself thinking of showing my own children the street where I used to play and the school I went to, so when the opportunity presented itself to take my kids to Pakistan, I took it.

What follows are some of the things we saw, experienced and tasted, because beyond the terrorism and the frightening geopolitics there is a country where people still live, where the people who knew me as a little girl now wait to see that little girl’s children, people who I remember as towering giants are now shorter than me. They clasp their hands and exclaim “Mashallah!” that the stubborn little girl who told everyone who would listen that she would become a journalist actually went through with her childhood plan, and is still just as stubborn.

A place where everything has changed and still nothing has changed. The hand-painted signs have been replaced with LED lights, but the hot jalebis still taste as good.

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Now You See Me, Now You Don’t

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There’s a game I sometimes like to play when people ask me where I’m from. I’ll challenge them to guess, and shake my head at all their wrong answers. Egypt? Brazil? Israel? Spain? Lebanon? Mexico? Barbados? No, no and no. So far, no one has ever got it right, and I’ve been playing this game for over a decade now. I really should start bringing money into the equation.

I don’t look like enough of any one thing to be easily placed. I don’t look like enough of an ethnic minority. Dressing the way I do and acting the way I do automatically excludes me from almost every narrative of muslim women that the mainstream media uses. You won’t find me with a national flag wrapped around my head like a hijab when out protesting. Even though I still lose sleep over the same issues that affect immigrant women everywhere, I don’t make a powerful front-page photograph.

I don’t wear my religion on my sleeve, by which, of course, I do not mean to criticise those who choose to express their religion in a more obvious way. I see and feel all the fallout from the rising tide of anti-muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment across Europe, but those dialogues rarely see me because I choose not to make myself seen.

When the current US President signed his executive order banning entry t the US from seven predominantly muslim countries, it hurt me in a way I didn’t think it would. I am not a hijab wearing woman being constantly targeted because of her religion. I am not from one of the seven banned countries. I’m not even American. Why did I find it so distressing?

Because the mere fact that one person in power could reduce whole populations to just one aspect of who they are upset me to the point that I lost sleep over it. I’m a woman – I know what it feels like to be stripped of every aspect of who you are until you’re regarded as just one thing. All women know this feeling. It’s our deeply unpleasant initiation into womanhood, often before we’re even the age where we’d be considered women. I didn’t need to be American, or a hijab wearing muslim woman to appreciate some of the deep pain that this executive order caused. It’s easy to feel the hatred of anti-muslim sentiments when it manifests in actions like these, and it’s easy to start taking it personally.

“But you don’t look muslim” is something I hear all the time, as if there is only one particular way of being anything. The hijab has become such an iconic image and such a flashpoint for debate that the narrative around it has unknowingly managed to exclude every other type of muslim woman. It’s become shorthand for a group that’s pitied and reviled in equal measure.

Since I live in Greece, my frame of reference for my experience as an immigrant and muslim woman is going to be Greek society, but practically all of what I have experienced could apply to any country in Europe right now.

As a rough estimate, I’d say over half of the people I interact with who don’t know I’m a foreigner or muslim will have an anti-immigrant or anti-muslim statement to make. It normally starts quite innocently – I’ll be sat in the back of a taxi, quietly trying to gauge the nature of the taxi driver. Do I see religious icons adorning the dashboard? What radio station is he listening to? This being Greece, even on the shortest drive we’ll usually pass a church. If the driver doesn’t cross himself three times, Orthodox fashion, it usually means I don’t have to brace myself for prying questions about my faith, or lack thereof.

If the driver crosses himself, I get ready for what is most likely to follow. Sometimes it’s genuine curiosity – Greeks are in general very friendly, talkative and curious by nature. Usually we’ll have a nice, interactive chat about our parts of the world, their differences, problems and the things they have in common. Other times, it’s either a lecture on all the damage that Islam has caused the world, or questions about why groups like ISIS do what they do in the name of Islam. If I knew the answer to that, I would have shipped out my knowledge to the highest bidder years ago. It’s like thinking that listening to a couple of U2 songs when I was a teenager is supposed to make me have an answer as to why Bono has turned out the way he has.

Sometimes revealing my religion and status as an immigrant makes the other person demand answers from me. Why is there so much crime where immigrants go (not the good type of immigrants, the expats from the north, the bad type with dark skin)? Why do Pakistanis attack foreign women? Why don’t they respect women? And why don’t your women respect themselves? Why the hijab? But this is your religion and your culture, surely you must have an answer to all these aspects which are not in your control? It’s startling the ease with which people make such sweeping statements about peoples and cultures, when in most cases I’m sure I’m the first muslim or the demonised type of immigrant they actually had a face to face conversation with.

We’re living in a Europe where people have latched on to quick fixes and easy answers, and a Europe which is decisively swinging to the right. Brexit and the fact that Golden Dawn still remain Greece’s third most popular party are some examples of that. I’ve been in conversations with people who make casually racist statements about Pakistanis without realising my origins, then look taken aback and say “But you don’t look Pakistani.” I don’t know whether it’s the light or something else, because I sure looked Pakistani enough in the UK to have racist slurs yelled at me in the street a few times.

In some ways my invisibility gives me a truer picture of what people are thinking right now – in the absence of a hijab, no one self-censors around me. If they don’t know me at all, the speak even more freely, sometimes looking at me for back up. “Am I right?” the barista might say after his little speech about how immigrants are ruining the country, even though you didn’t order your morning coffee with an extra shot of racist rhetoric. And I’ll sigh and feel myself deflate a little, because I know that once again I have to defend my position. I’ll admit there are times when it’s just too much trouble to do, and I’ll try to get them to drop the subject by saying “It’s a free country, you’re allowed to believe whatever you like.”

The last time this happened, I was at a pharmacy in Kavala in the firing line of a chain-smoking pharmacist, who, as she took her time to ring up the medication I was buying, began to ask the usual questions. Where was I from? Athens, I replied. No, where are you originally from, she asked.

So I told her. She shook her head and took a drag of her cigarette. “Muslims are terrible people. They are the worst people in the world. Everywhere they go, they cause trouble. You are lucky you married a Greek and escaped all that.”

This line of how lucky I am to have escaped whatever horrible life I would be living otherwise (commuting on the Tube and paying London rents under grey British skies, I assume, which okay, it does sound nightmarish) by marrying a Greek is one I’ve heard a couple of times now. I always correct the person with what a loving and progressive family I grew up with. I was brought up with my own set of wings, I didn’t need a man to come along and help me fly out of a cage I was never locked in in the first place. That’s often rejected if it doesn’t fit into the other person’s narrative.

I argued. She kept smoking, and kept going back to the same line of how terrible all muslims are. “If you walked around like you are now, with your head uncovered, don’t tell me they wouldn’t kill you in your home country.”

I looked at my jeans, trainers and baggy sweater dress. “They wouldn’t” I replied. “They would,” she insisted. She once more fell back to her line of how terrible muslims were. My words made no difference, so I threw my “it’s a free country” line at her, paid and left. I would go home to tell the story of the racist, chain-smoking pharmacist in Kavala, and she would probably go home to tell the story of the muslim woman who didn’t even know how oppressed she was.

My invisibility is most definitely a privilege, too. I don’t have the dramatic immigrant story to tell. I cross borders without problems thanks to that coveted dark red passport (soon to change back to black, I’m sure). I can sit within earshot of a xenophobic conversation and know that it’s not likely I’ll be dragged into it.

The flipside is that my invisibility is a problem for the other side of the argument too. I’m not muslim enough, so how could I understand the dilemma of the hijab-wearing muslim woman? I vanish on the streets, so how could I know what it feels like to be the Pakistani woman in traditional clothes being yelled at by the native shopkeeper for touching the vegetables on display? I’m not eastern enough for the east or the west, which leaves me in a kind of limbo.

I can do a disappearing act if I want to by just blending in, or declare my origins with how I dress, although this was something I stopped doing after Golden Dawn’s 2012 victory in Greece. Emboldened, people became openly racist, and I escaped into neutrality by just not wearing traditional clothes outside the house. I went back to wearing whatever I wanted two years ago, because allowing fascists to censor part of who I am is not a lesson I want to pass to my children, and there’s nothing better than Gul Ahmad lawn in a Greek summer.

So I’m left with quite an attractive option, which is to embrace the fluidity I possess, all the while being aware that I will not be able to stop defending aspects of who I am to people who insist on sticking me inside a narrative which suits them, and that includes the one of the successfully integrated immigrant, rather than just me being me. Nothing in this life comes for free.

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Dancing With the Demon In My Mind

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Illustration By Ted Ed/Helen M. Farrell

There is something magical about the Greek sea. The first time I ever saw it I couldn’t get over how blue it was. I’d only ever seen the murky green waters of the river that used to run a short drive away from my house when I was a child – on precarious internal flights from Bahawalpur to a larger city, you could see the patchwork of green fields growing from any space its banks offered. Apart from that, the cloudy, freezing waters of the Atlantic, and briefly on a holiday, the turquoise waters off a Malaysian coast.

But I had never seen a sea like this. It was so blue I wanted to drink it. It was intensely beautiful, but frightening at the same time. I only learnt how to swim at 23, and whenever I go into the sea, it scares me a little. The moment I can’t feel the bottom any more I always feel a shard of panic before reality replaces my fear – there are people around, the shore is just a few short meters away, the sun is shining. I’m safe.

Living in Greece, I learnt to make the sea a part of my life. And a few summers ago the sea was also my chosen method for wanting to end it.

This is one of the hardest blog posts I have ever written, because it makes me so uncomfortable. It’s a post I never intended to write. The things it contains only recently became known to the very closest people in my life. This story was never a story to be told, because it makes me feel ashamed. But the fact that I reached the point of deciding that killing myself was the best option came about because of silence. It came about because of the stigma attached to mental health. I was so horrified at the hideous the journey my mind had taken that I chose to stay silent rather than get help.

So what changed? Why now? It’s down to one man, a kind and gently man with a sweet smile, curly hair and hazel eyes. His name was Bernard Thomson, and he was my great uncle. One week ago, he killed himself.

My mother’s side of the family suffers from a lot of mental health issues. I lost two cousins from the same family to suicide. My maternal grandfather had such severe depression that nothing seemed to help, not even electroconvulsive therapy. I have another cousin who I am pretty sure is bipolar because of certain thoughts and patterns of behaviour he has mentioned, but who has not sought help for himself, and a great aunt who thankfully tackled her depression after she started having suicidal thoughts.

That’s a lot of depression in one family. While the link between inheriting depression isn’t yet proven, there is some evidence to suggest it can run in families, and I do think that one day we’ll isolate a gene responsible for messing with our brain chemistry. This is because the type of depression in our family seems to me to be so specific, right down to the thoughts people have.

Uncle Bernie as we knew him, had been in hospital at the start of the year after going missing. After thinking that he wasn’t going to come to any harm, despite his suicidal thoughts, the hospital discharged him.

We all went back to our lives, until a week ago when my Facebook timeline began filling up with messages from family members asking if anyone had seen him. Several hours later, a runner reported finding discarded clothes by the river. He’d drowned himself in the freezing winter river, just as he had said he was going to do.

When I heard this, my heart sank. I thought about him in his last moments, as he made his way to the river, the demon in his mind whispering in his ear “This is a good plan, this is a great plan. Let’s die, that will make it better for you. It will make it better for everyone.” That same demon which had whispered those same thoughts to me a few years ago, thoughts which I almost listened to.

The fact that I was so depressed didn’t spring from being the mother of a baby and a toddler. It didn’t spring from my older son’s diagnosis. It was a combination of things, most importantly that the first time I remember feeling depressed, I was 11. It’s always been there, hiding somewhere in my head. The bombshell dropped into my life certainly made it worse, but I do feel that if it wasn’t this, it would have been something else that set it off. Sometimes it’s near the front, sometimes it’s near the back. Sometimes it breaks free and goes on a mission to destroy my life, and very nearly destroy me.

I should have got help when I began to sink, but I didn’t because I didn’t want it to seem like I couldn’t cope. Everyone else coped, why couldn’t I. So I continued to swallow what I was feeling, until it flooded every part of me.

I was in agony. Imagine being stuck in a room with a person who is insulting you, telling you you are a failure, useless, hopeless, you’ll never be happy, you’ll never be anything. In this situation, you’d get up, walk out of the room and slam the door behind you. Now imagine that the other person is your brain. I got so exhausted by the constant self-flagellating dialogue running in my head like a broken tape, that when one day another little voice said “You should probably kill yourself” it seemed like a brilliant plan to escape how much mental pain I was in.

If you have dealt with mental health issues and suicidal thoughts, let me issue a warning now that what follows might be a trigger for you. If you don’t want to read the details, but want to know how I came through it, stop here at the first line of asterisks and continue after the next line.

****

It’s shocking when I think back to it now how clear-minded I was when I laid out the pros and cons of each method of taking my life. It was if I were planning a birthday party, not my own death. But I know now that this is a common experience of those who go through what I did. Your brain latches onto a solution to escape all the pain, albeit the wrong one, and methodically sets about setting the plan in motion.

I had already got past how upset my family and small children would be. By this point I had perfectly justified my thoughts by convincing myself that I was so useless that everyone would be better off without me. Sure, there would be some sadness. But my parents had three other daughters. And my kids could get a much better functioning stepmother instead of the broken version of a parent they had. What was not to like about this fantastic plan??

After running through the various options, I ruled out whatever seemed too messy, too traumatic for whoever would find me, and would leave too many bad memories in my house, and I settled on the perfect plan. Like I said, the sea scares me, because I’m scared of drowning. Drowning to me seems like a terrible way to die.

So that’s what I chose. My self-loathing was so extreme by this point that I picked the method I knew scared me the most and would make me most miserable. I planned to drive out to the coast in the middle of the night, swallow as many sleeping pills as I could and walk into the sea. I even picked out what I would wear.

Bizarrely, having settled on how I was going to kill myself made me feel a bit better, and more purposeful. It didn’t matter how much I was suffering and making everyone around me suffer. It would be over soon.

****

In the end, I never came close. I’d love to tell you that this happened because of some beautiful epiphany about how wonderful life is, but by that point my self loathing was so extreme that I thought “You’re so useless, you’ll botch your own suicide, end up paralysed or with locked-in syndrome and then be an even bigger burden on everyone around you.”

I was too tired of living, but too scared to die. And so, not being able to guarantee that my suicide attempt would actually kill me, I backed down and decided to suffer through living. I sat at the bottom of the well I had fallen into, looked up at the pinprick of light, sighed heavily and started a half-hearted attempt to climb back out.

It took a lot of work. There is no easy way back when you have fallen so far down. But, bit by bit, day by day, I got closer to the light. I went back into therapy. I tried medication for a while, and it was great. I felt the sharp edges of my mind dull slightly so I couldn’t slash myself to pieces on them any more. I learnt that I could and in fact deserved to function without letting the demon of depression take over my life.

I know better now. I know when I wake up and think “What should I do today?” and my brain answers “Why don’t you kill yourself?” it’s brain chemistry. I know it’s how my thoughts are wired, and I am getting better at ignoring that voice. I’ve identified my triggers, which I try to avoid, and made time in my life to do things that make me happy. I try to be more open about my own journey with mental health, purely because I wish more people talked about it. When I hear other people describe symptoms, thoughts and behaviours I’ve experienced, it’s reassuring. I know I’m not alone.

People tell me all the time that I’m the last person they think could ever have been so depressed and I don’t really know how to answer them. There is no right or wrong way to have depression, no right or long problems to bring it on. It just happens.

When things are good, I feel like my heart will burst with joy at how beautiful life is. I love my family, I’m living my dream and making my living from writing and even with all its problems, I adore the city I live in. No one knew about the fact that I had been suicidal to the point of making an actual plan to take my life, not even my husband. Being that good at hiding what I was going through is not a good thing. It’s a sign that something was not right. When you are working so hard at seeming normal even though you are falling apart that it’s consuming practically all of your energy, something’s wrong.

Writing this post that makes me feel very exposed right now. People I know will read it, and I don’t know what they’ll think once they do. But I wanted to take another step towards opening the dialogue that’s so badly needed when it comes to mental health. Step by step, the demon can be silenced. Having stood at the edge of where my great uncle’s mind took him, I feel so sad that the toxic, black demon of depression got him. It convinced him he was better off dead.

If that demon torments you too, I want you to know that you are not alone. It happens to a lot of us. The demon will tell you that no one cares about you, you are useless and you should jump onto the tracks as the metro approaches. It will tell you that people would be happy if you died, because you are dragging everyone down with your problems. It will tell you you are selfish and crazy – normal people don’t think like this. Why does everything have to be about you all the time and the things going on in your head?

Don’t listen to the demon. Get help. For now, no one has found a way to extract the demon from our brains but there are plenty of ways to keep the demon in check, including therapy, medication, exercise and more. You are not alone, and you are not crazy. The chemicals in your brain aren’t working properly. I’m not going to tell you that when you step back from the edge, you will instantly feel better. You won’t. You might not be better for a long time. But I promise you that a day will come when you will feel at peace again and you will think “I’m glad I’m still here.” You can overcome this. Most importantly, don’t let the demon convince you that you are not loved and you are not precious. You are.

I suppose I won’t ever know if sharing this post was the right thing to do, but I hope it helps towards de-stigmatising mental illness. If you’d like to help that effort, there are many ways. Listen to The Hilarious World of Depression. It’s a podcast where the presenter (a fellow depression sufferer) interviews comedians about their fight with depression, and to me, it’s a great comfort to hear other people describe their own battles. Visit Make It Ok. Here you will find lots of information and advice on talking about your own mental illness, and how to constructively talk to loved ones about their battles with it. It’s one more step towards us all being better. You deserve to be well, and you can get there. 

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What Americans in Athens Think About These Elections

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American elections are always a global event, but this year, more so than ever. In the birthplace of democracy, elections are nothing new. But there’s one group of residents who will be watching these elections with particular interest. These are the Americans living in Athens, a long-established and vibrant community from across the Atlantic.

Americans have been arriving on these shores in a steady stream for decades, engaging in elaborate word of mouth games to root each other out in the days before social media, and dealing with the consequences of American policies which sometimes breed anti-American sentiments in Greece. They’ve learned to love loukoumades as much as donuts and eat their pumpkin pie savory instead of sweet.

And they’ve left their mark. There’s the private American Community School established in 1946, which currently occupies a sprawling space in Aghia Paraskevi and makes you feel like you’re looking at a school in California rather than Athens. Election fever saw them host their own mock presidential debates among students. Head to Kolonaki, and you’ll find the Hellenic American Union, established in 1957 while in Pagrati, there’s the Athens Centre, running since 1969, where you can enjoy culture, Greek lessons and more.

And there’s also IKEA. Yes, IKEA. I know it’s Swedish, but several Americans I spoke to said they go there when feeling a little homesick, because “IKEA looks the same everywhere!”

The Americans in Athens have been talking, debating, encouraging friends to vote and arranging election parties as they wait for November 8. Now when I speak to them, they find themselves in a quiet period, the eye of the storm so speak, as they prepare for what comes next.

“I feel like I won the lottery!”

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Marty Eisenstein is a guitar teacher from Boston who has been living in Athens since 1993 after following his wife here. He’s been teaching music lessons at one of the city’s private schools, Campion, for 23 years now, and has a daughter who just started state university.

Marty is a rare breed because he’s also Jewish and a guy! “There aren’t that many American guys here!” he says with a laugh. He’s hoping Hillary Clinton wins, but “I don’t want to jinx it.”

The difference between how Greeks and Americans view these elections is pretty distinct, according to him. He was in the US a few weeks ago, and says that while in America, people might call Hillary Clinton dishonest, in Greece they call her “a monster, a warmonger. That’s the first thing many Greeks say.”

He doesn’t think much will change to his day to day life, since he’s not had much hostility anyway. He does remember one moment of anti American sentiment so sudden and so strong that it made him cry. “The lowest moment in my 23 years was during the bombing of Serbia. My local bakery owner turned to me and said ‘We’re not the same, Greeks and Americans.’”

Whatever happens, he’ll still be here, teaching guitar the next day. “I lived in Israel for a few years and I think Greece appeals to that Mediterranean gene I have. In that sense I like it here, that’s what’s kept me here I think. I love the place in a lot of ways.

“If you think what Greeks have been through economically and politically, anywhere else, people would have taken guns on the streets already. It doesn’t happen in Greece. To me that’s an amazing thing. and now that my daughter is going to university for free, as an American I feel I won the lottery!”

“Trump? He’s a faflatas!”

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Stacey Harris-Papagioanou moved from Chicago to Greece in 1985 and divides her time between the glamorous island of Mykonos and Athens. Both sides of her family as Mykonian, which is why she can still afford to live on an island the rest of us can only dream about.

“The summer romance with my ex was the catalyst for moving here, but my real love was Greece.” she says.

She has two children, and has always cast her vote as an absentee. The moment she realized how important this was was during the Gore-Bush elections of 2000. “That election was so close. So not only did I make sure I was always registered to vote, but I made sure all my friends were too.”

Stacey is a very active member of Democrats Abroad, and when we speak, she’s just spent the week calling everyone to make sure they are ready to vote.

There is a big buzz around this particular election. “Everyone is saying vote, whatever you do, go and vote, and a huge percentage have already taken part in early voting and absentee voting.”

She’s only ever experienced anti-American sentiment twice, once during 9/11 when she heard people saying that America had it coming, and now when Greeks ask her “What’s wrong with the people in that country? How can anyone vote for Trump?”

“Trump, there’s a Greek word that describes him perfectly. He’s faflatas (someone who talks a lot but does little)! The difference between the candidates is night and day, and what that means for the rest of us will be night and day.” she says.

In stark contrast to the Greek way of doing things, Stacey says Americans have gone quiet and avoid political discussion as the election nears. “People don’t talk too much so as not to fight, unlike the Greeks that are very passionate and don’t mind telling their opinion to anyone. Americans a bit more reticent in that respect.”

And when she wants to get a flavor of America in Athens, she goes to the usual places one might suspect – the Hard Rock Cafe in Monastiraki, TGI Friday’s in Kolonaki and Applebee’s when it was still open. “Or a coffee with members of the American Women of Greece, of which I’m a member. We can talk about home, or where to find ingredients. We used to make tacos from scratch when I first came here, now you can just buy them in the supermarket! It’s so much easier for the new girls!”

“I was called a spy!”

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Christine Jackson has been here since 1972 after coming to Greece with her husband and arrived right in the middle of the Junta. “I was working at Deree college when the polytechneio events took place. I wasn’t there that day but colleagues heard the tanks go in.”

Christine is one of the longest established members of the American community in Athens. “Once I was called a spy! That was during the Cyprus crisis. It was totally unprovoked, I was on the street and my accent must have been wrong and a man called me an American spy.” She has one daughter, who played a caryatid in the Athens 2004 opening ceremony.

After working at the Deree college – “which I discovered wasn’t actually American,” she worked for the next few decades at the Fulbright Commission, advising Greek students who didn’t have scholarships but wanted to study abroad. “It’s an addictive job. I still do it.”

When she wants to get her American fix, she heads to the Athens Centre in Pagrati for cultural events and poetry readings. It’s a place where she’s met and become friends with other Americans in Athens over the years.

A fellow American who she very much admires is the former ambassador to Greece, Brady Kiesling, who resigned after America’s invasion of Iraq in 2003, becoming the first of three US foreign service officers to resign in protest. “That’s such a rare thing for a person to be that principled.” she says.

Christine says she’s very concerned about the outcome of these elections. “I think it will be a tipping point if Trump wins.”

“You can love your country and see that it needs improvements. Greeks certainly do that with their country. Patriotism is hollow if it doesn’t embrace the fact that you want the country that you love to be its best self not its worst self.” she says.

“If you can’t beat them, join them”

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Anna Goritsa came to Athens nearly 20 years ago to marry her Greek husband. She has two sons who are going through the Greek public education system. As an event travel consultant, she works with US companies based in Greece, so she’s around other Americans frequently, along with charity work and embassy events which keep her in touch with the community.

This for her is an election that’s turned the status quo on its head. “We are living in trying times and I believe that many of us who live in Greece are insecure on what the outcome will be. I’m very concerned. I believe that many US citizens will not exercise their right to vote during these elections.”

“When I am able to watch the elections with my fellow US citizens here in Greece, regardless of their affiliations, it’s more fun because we know why we are arguing. And yes we try to avoid prickly topics because we respect each other’s opinions. When watching with my Greek friends who have never lived or stepped foot in the US we argue for the sake of arguing.” she says.

As for anti-American sentiment, she’s experienced it a few times, but that changed with Greece’s economic crisis. “Greeks are experiencing anti-Greek sentiments all over Europe and have realized that the citizens of a country should not be judged for the policies of one’s government.”

Despite the downs, there have been some funny moments too. Back in 1997, Anna says she couldn’t find good-quality deodorant in Greece and so would have family and visitors bring stocks of American deodorant for years!

The American community in Athens has been a vibrant and well-established one. They’ve been through a lot together. But, Anna says, it’s very different for the new generation. “They’re not surviving because their potential and options are very limited and many are moving elsewhere. The same challenges exist today as 20 years ago for the newcomers. The number one survival quote when you move ANYWHERE in the world is “if you can’t beat them, join them.”

“I can’t wait till it’s over”

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Nick Barnets, a freelance journalist, has been coming to Greece all his life. He spent his summers in a village in Halkidiki but moved to Athens full time in 2014 to strengthen his career as a journalist.

For him, the elections are not just a political event. As a journalist, they affect his livelihood too. His job involves covering international affairs, and that will be affected by whoever is the next president. “Since I cover Greece, and occasionally Cyprus and other parts of Europe, the way the next president’s policies affect these areas will definitely affect what I’ll be reporting on and where for sure.”

Like everyone I spoke too, he’s anxious about these elections and the way they have polarized politics in the US. “I fear regardless of the outcome, there will be now more than ever in recent history, lots of hate and anger. If Donald Trump wins, there will be fear and anger among those who did not vote for him. If Hillary Clinton wins there will be fear and anger among those who did not vote for her.”

He’s finding watching these elections less intense that the last ones, because the last time around he was working as an election researcher for CBS News. This time, he can take a back seat and observe.

“This is the first time I’ve watched a presidential election from across the Atlantic, but it’s not as distant an observance as I thought it would be. Of course I’m also a political junkie, so I’m keeping up with it vigorously despite how upsetting this election has been.”

Anti-American sentiment is not something he’s experienced, especially not since Obama’s presidency and Greece’s recent turmoils which have meant that Germany has taken the place of America for disgruntled Greek sentiment.

Nick says his Greek friends are terrified of Donald Trump becoming president and are disappointed that Hillary Clinton is his main opponent in these elections. “She’s never really been popular here herself. They just can’t believe that we could end up in a world with Donald Trump as President of the world’s most powerful country.”

Perhaps it’s because of his job, perhaps because of the relentless, vitriolic and divisive nature of these elections, but Nick has had his fill. The sooner it’s all over, the better, as far as he’s concerned. “I can’t wait till it’s over, November 8th can’t get here soon enough for me because on the one hand I am always excited for watching the election results but also want this particular election to just be over with so we can move on.”

As one of the new generation of Americans in Athens, Nick doesn’t feel the same pull as the previous generation for getting a piece of America in the city when he’s homesick. That’s partly thanks to social media which keeps him well-connected with Americans friends and family. “But I do feel like I’m right back in the US whenever I’m at The Mall, because despite the stores being different and everybody speaking Greek, it really feels more America than Greece there.”

“I haven’t voted in a while”

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I’d easily call Rhea my favourite American in Athens, since she’s the first one I ever met. It was in her bohemian dance studio, festooned with belly dance costumes and off-the wall souvenirs she’d picked up over the decades that I learned two important things: how to dance first with my heart and then with my body, and how to stop taking life so seriously. It was there that I made my first Greek friends with my patchy, faltering Greek. She’s been somewhat of a mother to me, having seen me grow from a new student shrinking into the back of the room, through motherhood, miserable life events and the crisis which meant I couldn’t afford dance classes any more, and she lost nearly all of her students.

She then did something which I felt at the time was the equivalent of a cancer patient cutting all their hair off before it falls out. She stripped her studio bare. Today, all the costumes have been given away, the zebra-skin wall hanging is gone, the swords and coin belts have disappeared. My heart sank the first time I visited her after she carried out this purge.

Rhea arrived in Athens in 1975, and of all the Americans I spoke to, she is the only one who had absolutely no connection to Greece. As a professional belly dancer in California, she had a dream that she was dancing under the Acropolis. So she upped and left, and has been here ever since. Her tales of life in Athens, including the time she chased down an aggressive driver and attacked his car with her dance sword are endless, hilarious and sometimes sad.

Is she voting? “No. I haven’t voted in a while. I’m not going to go to the American Embassy and lose an entire morning or afternoon. I hate to say it… but no actually I don’t hate to say it. I never talk about politics. I’m telling you because you asked me. We’re not going to hell in a hand basket. The world will go on as it is.”

Athens’ 12-foot American

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My final American is tall and stoic, clutching a scroll in one hand and staring quietly at the traffic and offices opposite him.

He doesn’t say a word to me, but I don’t mind. You see, he’s a statue. The statue of President Truman to be precise. This rendition of the 33rd American president, a known philhellene, is a lightening rod for anti-American sentiment. Since it was erected in 1963, it’s been rammed with a car, bombed, toppled over and splashed with paint.

On the day I meet him, with hours to go until polls open, Mr Truman is looking pretty good, but a closer inspection reveals little specks of red paint clinging to the bronze and larger splashes generously flecked on the surrounding ground.

In an election campaign where both sides paraded childish statues of each other, at least this statue of an American leader retains some dignity, even when he’s brightly decorated with pink and red paint. It could be worse. He could be a statue of Donald Trump.

A condensed version if this article appears in Greece Is. 

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My second first day at school

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Mean Girls, basically a documentary about my first day at English school. Though I never got popular.

My very first day of school, I was excited. I couldn’t wait. I proudly put on my school uniform – white dress, white socks, white shoes , school badge – and went off. My mother hovered around the door waiting to see if I would join the chorus of sobs around me.

“Go home, no need to stand by the door. I’m alright Mum. Go home!” I said, and sent her on her way. I was five years old.

My second first day of school was a little different. I was 14 years old, wearing a tie and blazer for the first time in my life, my hair neatly tied back into a tight braid, like I always did at school in Pakistan. I sat outside the principal’s office, waiting. My mother asked if I wanted her to stay with me, and I said no, I would be alright. The truth is I desperately wanted my mother to stay.

But I knew that it wouldn’t make my life any easier if she did. I’d still have to go to a new school on my own tomorrow, so I cut to the chase and decided I might as well jump in the deep end. I remember thinking how cold it was for May. Just a week ago, I’d been in the blistering heat of a Pakistani May. The school uniform I was wearing now was a world away from my white cotton shalwar kameez. I liked it, though. I felt very smart in it.

The principal came and escorted me to my new class. I smiled expectantly at my new classmates. I was met with a sea of bored faces. No one smiled back. I was sent to shadow one of the other girls in my class until my own class schedule could be prepared. My teacher, Mr Yates, found me a free seat and sent me to sit down. Next to a boy. More details of my horrified reaction here.

Even though I spoke the language, I found that first day of school incredibly hard. I tried desperately to act like everything was fine. I asked a few times when school finished. “Twenty to.” came the reply. I’d never heard time told like that. Twenty to what? I felt I should know that, so I didn’t ask.

I was used to classes that began at 7:30 and finished at 12:30, with 40 minute lessons crammed in back to back and one 15 minute break. I couldn’t believe how long the school day was in England. It just went on and on. And you had to change classes. We didn’t do that in Pakistan either – there, the teacher came to us. It felt like a madhouse. So much noise, so much talking, such a big school, so many corridors. Just pure confusion.

And the kids – my peers were so rude, both to each other and to the teachers. I stared in shock as they answered back. They chewed gum in class. At my old school, we were not allowed to have our hair loose. Here, the girls wore it any way they liked, and in all sorts of colours – had my tight, frizzy braid been a mistake?

I spent most of my day with my cheeks burning red – the language! The profanity! And I didn’t know 14 year English boys were so burly. They were not kind or polite at all. They were crass, and rude, and HUGE! They stomped around like giants. Some of the meaner girls wanted to take a detailed history of my love life, and when I had absolutely nothing to report – no first kiss, no first anything – they looked at me like I had just arrived from the moon.

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Which boy do I like? How about none of the above?

My brain was going into overdrive, trying to take notes for things that might be useful for me to settle in and find a place in the social order of the school. But by the afternoon, I’d given up. There was simply too much ‘new’ for my brain to register and file away.

I came home with a pounding migraine after that first day of school and burst into tears. I insisted my parents had made a mistake. This was all too much, we should go back to Pakistan. But after I calmed down, I got up the next day and went back to school again.

And eventually, it wasn’t so bad. Whereas under the Pakistani school system I was an average student, under the British system, where you were encouraged to think a little more freely and not just memorise texts, I was considered above average smart. This was a huge confidence boost for me, and I flourished academically.

I’m thinking of all this today because today refugees around Greece will start going to school. This will be a combination of special schools just for them and integrations into the Greek schooling system. I’m remembering my panicked, blushing, horrified, exhausted and tearful 14 year self, who could at least speak the language, and hadn’t come from the incredibly difficult backgrounds they do. I’m wishing them all good luck and this little message from me:

Stick at it. I hope it’ll get easier.

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More good advice from Mean Girls

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