Monthly Archives: February 2017

Now You See Me, Now You Don’t

hide_how-to-disappear

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.

Advertisements

2 Comments

Filed under Greece, Pakistan, thoughts

Dancing With the Demon In My Mind

depression

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. 

11 Comments

Filed under depression, duchenne, motherhood