I always feared that I would be called weak if I expressed any vulnerability. So instead, I put on a “strong” face at all times. The stronger I appeared to be, the less anyone guessed at my inner sadness, feelings of isolation, or hopelessness.
Being third generation Southern Africans of Indian Gujarati descent we were pretty well integrated into Zambia. (Yet I still had identity issues which is a topic for another post!)
I was attending the International School of Lusaka, and as a teenager, I was a straight A student, a member of the students council, on the swim team, a Bharatanatyam dance student and performer, a runner and so on. But I was always alone in my thoughts. Generally happily alone, but sometimes suffocatingly.
I developed an eating disorder. I was highly focused on controlling my intake and my exercise. If I ever felt that I overate I would force myself to throw up.
No one knew about this.
I remember thinking it might be good for me to see someone, to speak to someone, about my depressive thoughts and feelings. A fleeting thought. But it wasn’t something that was ever mentioned in my home or school milieu. It’s not usual in Zambia, to see a therapist or counselor, not usual for a South Asian to even mention it, let alone share information about it.
At the age of 15 after some contemplation I tried to take my life. Thankfully I failed. When I came-to that night, I was ashamed of what I had done and decided to move on strongly. I erased the memory of that experience from my mind.
I didn’t share it with a single person until many years later when I told my husband about it.
At 17, after graduating from secondary school, I needed out of Zambia. My parents gave me the opportunity to move to Montreal where I attended McGill university. Like a rather typical South Asian child, I imagined going on to medical school. Little did I understand that such a big move across the world might trigger depression. My grades weren’t good enough for a competitive medical school. I was barely managing to stay afloat. I put on weight. I missed my school friends.
But I trudged on. I never gave up entirely. In my second year I played squash on the varsity team, tried a few dance classes. I felt good that my brother and cousin also moved to Canada. In my third year I met my husband to be, Maher. After the fifth year I ended up with a degree in biology and economics.
After a two year long distance relationship I accompanied my then boyfriend to Lebanon. We then spent a few months in Russia where we decided to get married. After moving back to Lebanon where I tried to do a masters degree and dropped out, we moved to China, and now we are in Thailand.
In all those years of travel and experience I never asked for help. It wasn’t until I was 34, a wife, a mum of prematurely born twins, a yoga teacher, and suicidal again that I finally contacted a professional for help. When I did, I didn’t tell any of my family until I was hospitalized a year later. I was afraid of the reaction, I wasn’t sure I’d manage it if I was called weak, thought of as seeking attention, or if I was told that I was wasting my time.
I hope more South Asians and others who grew up in Southern Africa for that matter, will open up and seek professional help from therapists, and psychologists when needed.
Stigma against mental health still runs deeply. I hope for this to change.
In my hope to share some of my stories, at first I was met with resistance, thankfully I didn’t give in to this. I feel that I know myself better for doing so. Since being hospitalized and opening up and sharing in the last few months I have been received with love and kindness by my family and friends.
I was recently directed to an organization doing amazing work to break the stigma against mental health in South Asian communities. Please have a look at their work, connect with them on social media, listen to their pod casts, share with others.
Please feel free to comment, make suggestions, or ask questions.