Learning to Live Again

Eds. Note: Trigger warning for mental illness, suicide, and self harm.

Key Ballah

Key Ballah

I would like to write plainly, with no pretence, no frills, no fancy language, but that would not be me, my style or my experience. I am a poet and a writer; if I am nothing else, I am that. I cannot shut words out to create clean lines or paint my experiences stark white, especially when they have always been a myriad of colours. My experience with mental illness has been perpetually horrible and beautiful simultaneously, a cacophony of experiences dancing together like water colours. But, despite the intricacies, the nuances and layers, I want this to be real. I want you to see the bones of it. Perhaps it may help you heal, or understand, or neither.

For me, mental illness has never been clinical. It has always been a lover, one that you despise but still let into your bed out of habit. One that you keep in secret because you know no one will understand. It has been intimate, it has been complex.

It was in 2009 that I first felt the black cloud of depression greeting me from above. I didn’t understand it then, I had just graduated high school, I was beginning university, I had a boyfriend who loved me deeply, I was young and, according to everyone else, this was the beginning of the time of my life. I was sad then, often so sad I contemplated suicide and in a desperate grab for control, I thought I might try cutting. I remember the night vividly sitting on the floor of my bathroom with a razor in my hand making little superficial cuts on my wrists and forearm. I remember it stinging and then abandoning it all together.

I didn’t know how to be sad. I know this sounds ridiculous, but I really didn’t. I thought there was some sort of formula that you had to follow when you felt like this, but I couldn’t bring myself to follow it. This sadness didn’t make me want to cut, or throw myself in front of a train, it just made me not want to exist.  I didn’t want anything dramatic, I didn’t want anyone to suffer, I didn’t want to leave a note, or to seek revenge, I just wanted to disappear, to melt into the walls , to not exist.

In my first year of university, I was sexually assaulted by my boss at work on an overnight shift. I struggled for a long time, wondering if I  had allowed those things to happen to me, if I had been complicit by only brushing off his advances, by simply ignoring the inappropriate language. I was away from home, my mother was working two jobs to pay for my rent, it was my job to pay my tuition and I couldn’t do that, not without a job.

I quit my job, dropped out of school after my first semester and did not leave my apartment for months. The depression that I felt earlier that year grew into a monster that held me in its hand and squeezed, often. I was alone 24 hours a day, seven days a week for almost three months until my mother told me it was time to come home. I was sick, I knew that, but I wasn’t sure how to explain it. It felt like a weight that hung on each limb and around my neck, like a shadow that clung to me, enamoured and in love.

I returned home and soon learned to live with the shadow on my back. In our house sadness and depression are not productive. If my parents taught me anything it was to work hard and be productive. They often worked four jobs between them. Staying in bed all day and experiencing unprovoked bouts of weeping were not productive. I knew that. So I learned to dress my shadow up as something else, anything else. And I succeeded, so much so that I just walked through life numb but feeling like I had won, like I had beaten depression. Never mind my insomnia or my anxiety around men, those were secondary, I was too busy to be sad. I literally did anything I could not to be static, out of fear that I would remember, that I wasn’t actually this person I was pretending to be.  I dressed it up so well that most people didn’t even know it was there.

It wasn’t until during a coffee date (that I had cancelled on so many times she threatened to end our friendship), when a good friend asked if I was depressed. Before that moment I had never even considered the idea that I might be suffering from a mental illness.  I laughed when she asked, the words didn’t sit on me, they rolled off like they didn’t belong. Depression wasn’t for women like me. It just wasn’t, I had never heard that come from the mouth of a woman who looked like me, who shared my culture or my language. Maybe I was a little sad, but depressed? To be depressed you had to believe that was even a thing, and I didn’t.

I used to be an extrovert, before life happened. When I was a carefree little black girl, I used to like when people noticed me, but over the years I have faded away and something that used to make me feel special now riddles me with fear. I remember my first anxiety attack. I was sitting on a bus full of people and an older woman got on the bus with her grocery trolley and struggled to hang on. I watched her sway and stumble with the bus, I watched everyone around her ignore her, purposefully not meeting her eyes, the sitting people burying their faces in phones and books, trying to avoid her pleading stares.

I stood up way at the back of the bus and meant to call to her, to come and take my seat. But as I opened my mouth the thought of everyone’s eyes turning to me made my skin prickle. The thought of them watching me and then watching her walk towards me and then watching me maneuver oddly through the crowd to a place I could stand with my backpack and coffee mug. I watched her from where I sat stumbling and sliding with the jerky bus and my heart found its way to my throat. It was a shameful thing but my breathing became quick and shallow, soon the shame and the anxiety crescendoed, and a few moments later I was spilling off of the bus 20 mins before my stop, throwing up in the grass by the bus shelter.

Things like that continued to happen. Friends would invite me out and I would decline at the prospects of having to meet other people. I became  socially claustrophobic, unable to make friend dates because I was too anxious about sitting across from someone and having to pretend I wasn’t on the verge of throwing up because they were looking in my face and expecting eye contact. I lost a lot of friends during this time in my life, and solitude became more and more important. The anxiety forced me to reflect, which in turn forced me to write, and so I began writing more frequently. It was really the only thing I could do. In the solitude I also found the desire to become more practicing, to spend more time with Allah, to listen to more Qur’an.

Now, I understand that depression and anxiety are not healthy, that they are not to be romanticized , but it would be a lie to say that I didn’t find colours in them that made me feel more connected to myself. The thing about anxiety is that it really amplifies the way you think, it breaks interactions down into fragments for you to toil over. I learned to understand the way that I thought.

I would plan how I could leave the house while avoiding having to talk to anyone. I’d leave early in the morning before everyone was awake, or late in the afternoon after everyone else had left. I would put earphones in when I was on the bus even when I didn’t have anything playing and bury my face in the top of my knapsack. I would have things in my bag that I could keep in my hands to fidget with if I felt like I was starting to “spazz out” and I learned that long deep breaths helped it pass quicker than short shallow ones. I got really good at saying no to people, at declining invites and cancelling plans. For a while it felt like I had some control in all of my madness.

But eventually, I had to see a therapist.

It became difficult to keep the shadow cloaked, it grew everyday and I felt like it was getting too difficult to hide.

When the therapist used the terms “depression” and “anxiety attacks”, I cringed. They sounded clinical and boxy and like nothing I had thought myself to be. She asked about family history, I thought about my grandmother, and the way that she got sometimes, she’d say it was just one of those days, but I could always recognize the shadow. She wasn’t as good as me at dressing it.

”I’m not crazy.”  I reminded her, over and over throughout our sessions.

She never once said that I was. In fact, she discussed the normalcy of feelings like these, the frequency in which they appear, but I felt like “crazy”  was what all of this meant, that somehow, somewhere I was losing my mind. I told her that I didn’t want to take medication, that there had to be another way because I am a person who refuses to take even a Tylenol for a headache. She gave me a series of self reflection exercises; she talked about meditation which I substituted for prayer; we discussed diet, telling me to stay away from extra hormones in meat and dairy products by consuming them rarely or not at all. She taught me tricks to escape the onset of an anxiety attack and how being productive does help, but only if you are doing positive things.

All of the tools that I needed, I already had, she just showed me how to use them. The stigma of telling someone about the way you feel is wrapped up in shame, this idea that the way we feel is  somehow not important because it’s not tangible. We are taught to take care of our bodies, cover our bodies, eat properly, work out, don’t smoke, don’t drink too much (or, for Muslims, not at all), don’t engage in high risk sexual activity because we have to preserve our bodies – but we are not often taught how to engage in preserving our mental health.

For me it had a lot to do with shame, a lot to do with secrets that built up until they were pouring out of my eyes uncontrollably, and at the wrong times. It had a lot to do with not valuing my own feelings, not valuing my emotional experiences and simply not caring about my mental or emotional health.

I’ve heard often throughout my life that “feelings are for women,” and that continues to be said today. As women, we need to understand the things we feel, we need to take time and space to heal past traumas in order to be truly successful in this life. We need to collectively work to end the stigma of mental illness by creating space for discussion, by not shaming people and their experiences, by making resources available.

We need to start by pulling out the roots, by learning healthy body politics, by challenging colonial depictions of our bodies, by learning how to engage in identifying our immense worth, by encouraging and uplifting each other, by learning how to hold secrets for one another, by learning how to be advocates for ourselves and one another, by learning how to value our emotions and supporting each other in our explorations of self, and by valuing different kinds of knowledge and different kinds of experience.

Our mothers and grandmothers suffered and continue to suffer in silence because of this shame, but we don’t have to, our children don’t have to. Feelings ARE for women and for men and for people who don’t identify as either, because feelings are inherent to being human. Feelings are for humans – it’s how we navigate humanity and love and friendship and ourselves.

The healthiest people understand that health engages not only the body but also the mind. There is no shame in wanting to be healthy.

Read more by Key, here.

Key Ballah is a Toronto-based writer and Hip Hop enthusiast. She is the author of the poetry collection, ‘Preparing My Daughter For Rain‘, she melts faith, love and her experiences of being a woman of colour navigating the western world in her writing. She believes in empowering the brown girl to reclaim her selves and her body, by connecting and healing collectively, over borders, oceans and time zones, through story telling and poetry. She is currently working on a new project due out this autumn.
contact her via email: keyballah@gmail.com
follow her on twitter & Instagram : @keyballah
read more of her works: www.keywrites.com





5 Comments on “Learning to Live Again”

  1. Mashallah I really liked this post; very well written! May Allah (swt) grant you ease and sabr!

  2. brevmana says:

    keep the spirit on

  3. kyanabrindle says:

    You are very brave for sharing this, sis. I wish you healing and happiness. Be well.

  4. Nell says:

    Courage. Strength. And laughter, one of the best therapies that I know. I wish you the best.

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