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Born dirty, ugly and guilty
Battling with depression
On the surface I looked like any other Londoner, sitting on a busy underground train; but on this particular day, I guess you would say I put little bit more effort into my appearance. I had woken up that morning not feeling good about myself, so I thought a little mascara, blush and lipstick might cover the turmoil that was building inside me. A guy sitting across from me smiled at me. This is rare in London; especially on a 6am commute. Within seconds, an uncontrollable fear and anxiety took over my body. I struggled to breathe: a very difficult situation on a packed train. I was scared to walk out in case I passed out and embarrassed myself in front of this very good looking guy smiling at me. I had the urge to cry, but I didn’t want look or sound crazy. I remembered an exercise that I had learnt while in therapy, which is to write down the feelings that are surfacing in that moment. To my shock and horror I wrote these three words: I felt Dirty, Ugly and Guilty. As horrific as this was, these feeling aren’t new to me.
Depression is an issue that I’ve been open about for the last few years. I remember being overwhelmed by readers who reached out to me after my blog for Cosmopolitan magazine. Many young women and men from all over the world contacted me sharing their experiences of depression, especially people from my own community. I received the usual negative feedback. I was told that I was too privileged to be depressed, or that emotional and psychological issues are something which are made up by people in the western world to excuse their lazy behaviour.
As I write this I’m extremely scared: of being judged by others, especially by those I love; of being abandoned, which causes me a great deal of paranoia, frustration, and of losing the ability to trust others. Admitting to myself that I was losing trust in other people was the hardest thing. I hate that I feel that way. I hate that the fear of being hurt by others has taken over my body and mind. I hate that the only way I feel I can protect myself is to go into full isolation. I don’t want to speak to others in an intimate setting. I don’t want to be looked at or touched.
The work that I do as a social activist and a psychotherapist means I’m in a constant space of listening to some of the most painful stories a human being could bear. I work with FGM survivors who have also experienced domestic violence, early/forced child marriage, torture and rape during civil wars, genocide and other political conflicts. Also, many present dealing with the fallout of a practice called breast ironing. This is where the breast tissue is broken down with a hot stone or wood, or even cut off because the breasts are seen as a dirty sexual organ which should be removed to protect girls from becoming a source of temptation to men. Over 200 million women have had their genitals removed, cut and mutilated because they are considered dirty.
I want to propose a thought to all my female readers: what we are talking about here is that from the moment we are born, we are considered dirty, carrying ugly sexual organs. We suffer the consequences of our ‘guilt’ for being born women.
My depression is triggered the moment I feel I’m going to lose control. At the age of seven I lost control of my body by being mutilated. I lost me. Nearly 30 years later, I still carry this constant fear of losing my body, and now, my mind. I had a recent episode where I made the decision to come off social media due to the harassment of trolls after my talk at the Oslo Freedom forum. I’ve had backlash before – but this was vicious and ugly in so many ways, threats to behead and rape me are way beyond acceptable. I am being punished for being a woman with an opinion. And this is happening while I’m trying to raise funds for the clinic I founded -the Dahlia Project, a specialist counselling service for FGM survivors. This clinic is my pride and joy. Having insufficient funds to run such a busy clinic has made me feel as though I must have failed somehow. The triggers began. Yet again, something was out of my control.
I’m a strong individual in many ways. I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t. However, I’m also a human being with feelings, and someone who sufferers from depression which multiplies any negative feelings. This triggers suicidal thoughts, non-functioning during daily routines, not feeling good enough, beautiful enough, not feeling loved or valued at all. I guess the hardest part of dealing with depression for me is that although I have many loved ones, whether its family members, colleagues or very close friends who truly look after me when I’m in such a state, I still feel very alone. I am aware that it’s extremely difficult for them too. Over the years I’ve become more open about my needs when I’m in a depressive state. For example, my loved ones now know that I sometimes need space to be with my thoughts. They usually get an email or WhatsApp message from me in which I disclose that ‘the dark clouds’ are kicking in. I particularly advise that they don’t try to fix or rescue me. This can be more destructive than helpful, as it puts me in a position where I need to be OK very quickly so I don’t burden anyone any further.
My mother finds it extremely difficult to not be able to protect or make her child feel better. She recently told me that she felt that she had failed as a parent. As a mother myself I can truly understand her sadness in this. I had to have an honest conversation with my teenage daughter. I felt it was import she understood why mummy wasn’t 100% at all times. I wanted to remove the stigma of shame. I can honestly say some days I still carry this shame. I guess I am a work in progress. My daughter has been extremely remarkable in helping me cope with my depression. She started making lovely cards to tell me how much she loves me. She brings her laptop to my room, and we watch our favourite movies in bed together. For a few hours my anxiety levels will decrease. I would laugh, and she would reassure me that it was OK for me to be sad or cry if I needed to. We end up cooking together; it’s one passion we both share.
This summer I took time out from public appearances and social media to take care of myself. I am back in therapy and discovered the joys of meditation. I now don’t go out of my flat without meditating for at least 25 minutes. It has made such a great difference, especially for someone like me: I just need to watch the news and see the devastation that’s taking place in the world and it truly affects me emotionally. A friend joked that I’m also suffering from democracy depression due to the current global political state. As a black person watching the growing white supremacist movement from Charlottesville onwards it is extremely traumatising. It’s especially painful to watch such scenes of hatred when raising a black child in this society.
My aim for this article is for others to understand the severity of depression, and how much it can affect your life on a daily basis; how it affects relationships with your family, partner and friends. My current experience has been that if other people blame you or make you feel guilty, then stay away from them, please. This is vital. In order to cope with our own turmoil, we must learn to set boundaries.
I know I will always live with this. Surrounding yourself with those that care about you is key. Time for yourself is vital, as is on-going therapy, or having a trusted person to speak to when feeling very low. Writing this wasn’t easy at all. It will never be, but it reminds me that my vulnerability is the strength of who I have become or am becoming. I’m not dirty, ugly or guilty.
Leyla Hussein is a trained psychotherapist with experience in dealing with issues affecting women of Muslim heritage. She will soon be starting an exclusive sister-hood video series, ‘Ask Leyla’. If you are a woman of Muslim origin with family, personal or psychological issues troubling you, then you can contact her with any questions here.
Leyla Hussein a trained psychotherapist and a multi-award winning campaigner on FGM and gender rights, including the Cosmopolitan Ultimate Campaigner Women of the Year Award 2010. In 2011 she won the Emma Humphreys Award, and the Lin Groves Special Award for her work in raising awareness of violence against women and children.