“My diagnosis is simple, I know that I have no cure…”
Julio Cortázar in Hopscotch.
It is here. I can feel it creeping in. Last time it manifested I was numb for a while. I cannot describe it in any other way other than just plain and pure nothingness.
We have cohabited for a while now. Sometimes it takes over. Sometimes it is barely perceptible.
I have adjusted to it, and I have gotten used to not talking about it. It does not matter what anyone says… the reality of things is that it is still a taboo.
At the beginning I did not talk about it to avoid the lectures and the judgement. Eventually, I realized that no matter how much outreach and awareness we want to raise about the issue, capitalism does not respect mental health. And in this economy, very few make room for people striving to cope and seeking to somehow heal.
My partner, the one who’s dead triggered all this, lived with deep depression for most of his life, but he did not know it, and it got progressively worse as he grew older. Coming from a conservative religious family that did not believe in mental illness, he never got a proper diagnosis or treatment. Whenever he fell into depression his family said that the jinn were making him sick or that someone had practiced black magic on him. And when he opened up to people in our Muslim community about his depression, these ideas were reinforced. He was told to “pray harder,” to fast and to make du’a to counter whatever feelings (or lack thereof) he was having.
It did not matter that I recommended multiple times seeing a doctor. In between the shame, the lack of access to a family doctor because he was an international student and the community’s resistance to even name the issue, he just never did. There were days when he was not functional. He could not get out of bed and he would not eat. There were times, when I had to be functional for the both of us. I took care of the everyday activities and kept up with his undertakings until he felt better to continue. Things were worse when he was in school, but little support existed within his University.
Yet, one thing is seeing your partner going through such a challenge, but it is a whole other level of complicated when you experience it firsthand.
When it started, people around me were quick to offer “solutions.” One side of my family insisted in me getting diagnosed and getting medication. In that side of the family mental illness is common and publically discussed, and many of my family members live with diagnoses that will require them to be medicated the rest of their lives. Thus, they have pledged their mental health to allopathic medicine.
But the idea of going down that path, from the very beginning, scared me. Thinking about it triggered images of other family members’ addictions. There were the alcoholics, the main reason, aside from Islam, why I have chosen not to drink. And there are those who have been addicted to all sorts of narcotics and antidepressants for decades. In fact, one of them was recently hospitalized after an overdose of antidepressants.
The other side of the family preached “holistic” ways to tackle the numbness, the anxiety and the emotional reactivity that had invaded my life. For months I was submerged in acupuncture, yoga, meditation, “natural remedies…” you name it!
It had been a while since I had dealt with depression and its many manifestations. The last time I was around 15, and my parents put me in therapy with a psychologist. I saw my doctor religiously every two weeks for about three years before I moved to Canada. It was when I moved that mental health had become not only a huge challenge pragmatically speaking, but that also treatment had become a luxury.
To gain access to consistent mental health treatment in many provinces in Canada you need access to a private insurance or to a high-paying job. Most public services will end after a few sessions, whether you are ready to cope by yourself or not. Mental health services in Canada are underfunded and overcrowded. And even those who can access services through Universities or work places may face other kinds of difficulties.
When I fell into numbness, I was functional. In fact I was hyper-functional. I did a lot, I slept little, and I just could not stop. But there were no feelings, and almost no memories attached to any of the activities. I sought help when the anxiety became unbearable and when even the smallest things would trigger uncontrollable worry and deep fears.
The first counsellor who I saw diagnosed me with post-traumatic stress disorder, and instead of recommending some sort of treatment, she advised me to drop out of school. The advice would not have been so outrageous if it was not accompanied by heavy doubts regarding my mental ability to conduct research in “a professional manner,” and if it did not overlook the heavy stigma that graduate students face in North America when dealing with mental health issues. Many face stigma and do not receive proper support from their programs. Most commonly, they are perceived as “weaker scholars” based on their experiences with depression and the alike. Nonetheless, that was the one and only option given to me, followed by a letter to my department and many of its members describing my “state of trauma” and my inability to continue.
But I continued. School was one of the very few things in my life that gave me a sense of normalcy and a sense of purpose.
My second attempt to see a therapist challenged my sense of being. What do you do when a therapist will not work with you because as a white, non-Muslim woman she feels she cannot properly support you, and she states that you need someone more “like your kind”? Thus, I was told that I had to be referred to a different therapist because she was “a foreigner like me” and she would “understand me better.” As if my color, my background and my accent made me incomprehensible. What is more, I was sent to see a Muslim sheikh, an orthodox Muslim scholar, because of my religious identity, even after clearly expressing that I did not want to deal with any kind of religious figure given my partner’s experience with depression and the Muslim community. But once more, I was told that he would “understand me better.”
Needless to say, I walked away. In my mind counsellors, particularly those in post-secondary institutions should all have cultural sensitivity and anti-oppression training… but such is not the case, which makes it particularly difficult for women of colour and of faith to access these services.
And while some of the coping strategies have worked here and there, at least enough to maintain my levels of functionality, I am still skeptical of counselling and therapy. Whereas I know that there may be wonderful therapists out there, I had one for many years, what are the chances of me coming across racist, sexist and Islamophobic “professionals” that will just perpetuate the very systemic issues I already face on an ongoing basis?
On the other hand… living in numbness is not much of a choice. It raises questions about aiming for something more than just “functional.” Perhaps even striving for feelings associated with important memories… getting rid, if at all possible, of the numbness… Because, at the end of the day, what is love if lived in numbness? What is radical love if lived anxiously?