This week, I had the chance to interview someone whose courage and strength I admire. This person has been suffering from depression, self-harm and is a multiple suicide attempt survivor. Yet, despite this illness, she has managed to take charge of her life, thrive and is now in her third year of medical school. Being born in Saudi and suffering from a mental illness, she shows that this illness isn’t only restricted to the west, it can happen to anyone regardless of religion or race. She prefers to stay anonymous and I respect her wishes so I’m not going to mention any names. But it was a pleasure interviewing her and I do hope this interview sheds some light on self harm and depression; and shows that you can survive and live your life despite the odds.
Tell me a bit about yourself
I am 22 turning 23 next March. I was born and raised in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA). Then I moved to Malaysia when I was seventeen for university. My brother was already there a year before me. I moved in with him and my cousin. I lived in Malaysia for three years; switched between electrical engineering and architecture throughout the three years. From there, I moved here to Sudan.
Wow, didn’t like the courses anymore?
Well, I couldn’t find myself in electronics engineering and I like to draw, so I thought I’d find myself in architecture and it wouldn’t be such a drastic change. But my dad had me change back (to engineering). I couldn’t get myself to go on with the courses so eventually, I got to transfer back to architecture.
Did your dad know you switched back to architecture?
Yeah my mum told him. At first he did mind, but there was nothing he could do really. Plus, it was my choice to make.
Yeah it is. Did you know a lot about mental health growing up?
My knowledge was of course limited and of course it still is, but I’ve always been greatly interested in that topic.
How old were you when you got diagnosed?
I was seventeen years and I was diagnosed with depression.
How did you find out?
Well, I’ve been depressed since my early teens but I never really knew what was wrong with me. And when I moved to Malaysia, it only got worse. I started self-harming and became extremely suicidal. I was very hesitant about seeing a doctor cause I was scared of my family’s reaction and how I was gonna be perceived. But a very close friend that I knew through twitter, who was (also) the only one who knew what was going on, managed to convince me to see a psychiatrist.
But how did you manage to hide the self-harm scars from people?
At first, I used to cut my legs only. When I started cutting my arms, I would do it in areas that weren’t noticeable. But after a bad incident, I had to start wearing long sleeves everywhere even at home which raised many questions from my brother and my cousin. But I always had a good answer ready.
What do you think is the relationship between depression and self harm? I mean, a lot of depressed people self harm, from your experience, why do you think it’s that?
Self harm is a way of coping with depression, or at least, it was for me. People that are depressed experience many emotions like emptiness, sadness, numbness and self hate. Expressing those emotions can be very difficult. And for some people, self mutilation is the only way they know how to do so.
So self harm is like a way of expressing the internal pain externally?
Well, for some people it is. People self harm for different reasons. Also, the reason why someone self harms one time maybe different from the next. Matching the internal pain or in different words, trying to distract oneself from internal pain is one reason. Some people do it to punish themselves, they feel like they are bad or they deserve it. It comes with self hate. For some, numbness can be very difficult and unbearable, so they self mutilate in order to feel anything at all.
Tell me about the breaking point that led you to heed to your friend’s advice and seek help…
I was in a very terrible place, I couldn’t function. I slept most of the day and the times I would be up, I spent crying, self harming, overthinking. I didn’t do well academically, was failing almost every subject and I was extremely suicidal. I was scared. I was scared of myself, so I had to do something about it.
when you got diagnosed, what was going through your mind at that moment?
Too many things were going through my mind. I knew that I was depressed, so the diagnosis wasn’t a shock. But the doctor decided that it was best for me to go on antidepressants. I was against the idea initially, for many reasons, one of which was the fact that my family had no idea what was happening. I felt that was something I had to discuss with my family but I couldn’t. I was also disappointed in myself and very embarrassed to be honest. Ashamed would be the right word actually.
Did you tell your brother then?
No, no one knew except my friend. No one knew about anything that was going on. They all found out later on.
When did you finally decide to tell your family?
Well, I didn’t really tell them. My brother kinda found out on his own. He was the one who found out first. He saw my arm once accidentally, but even then we didn’t talk about it. He saw it (and) asked me what it was. But I didn’t tell him and he left it at that. I don’t remember how I broke the news (about my depression) to my family, but they did take it well. What they didn’t take well was my self harming.
How did you break it to them, about your self harm and suicide attempts?
One incident led me to being hospitalized which forced me to tell him (my brother) what was going on. My family found out about a year later, he told them. He didn’t (notify me) before telling them, but I understand why he did it. So, I didn’t get offended or angry.
What led to your suicide attempt?
Before seeing a Psychiatrist, I was extremely suicidal which was why I went to see one in the first place. When the meds weren’t giving their effect, it made me lose hope even more and made my thoughts even stronger. I had swallowed pills many times but made myself throw them up. Eventually, I convinced myself to take them and keep them in, and I did. After taking the pills, I actually went to sleep which I think was the effect of the pills. A couple of hours later, I sat on my bed and started to feel dizzy and flushed and was in extreme pain. So, I got out of my room and caught him (my brother) and told him what I did. (After that) I had to get my stomach pumped and stayed in the hospital for 10 days to get treated.
What made you decide not to go through with it (the suicide) that time?
Well, I’m a Muslim. And for us, suicide is one of the biggest sins anyone could commit. When someone is suicidal, they don’t think logically. All they can think of is that they want out of whatever it is they are going through. I told my brother for the same reason I made myself throw up the times before, I was scared. I realized that I did something extremely wrong.
How did your parents react to it?
I didn’t tell them how bad it was.They were very worried so I had to reassure them and tell them that the meds were working, even though they weren’t.
Did you ever mention to your counsellor that the meds weren’t working?
I did, switched to a different med but they still didn’t work.
How did the hospitalization affect your education?
After that, I didn’t go back to school. My family decided it would be best for me to take some time off. But we then decided that I would move to Sudan and stay with my sister. And do (study) medicine which was something I was passionate about and wanted to do for a long time.
Were you worried about moving and coping with med school?
Of course, I still worry that medicine isn’t the right (path) for me considering my depression and all, but my passion for it keeps me pushing.
It’s been 5-6 years now, would you say you are healed?
Lol, no. Not really. I believe some people can and do get completely cured for depression. It depends on how early they seek help and how severe their depression is. For some though, it can be a life long battle.
Do you ever regret not asking for help early?
Yes, always. I feel like a huge reason why it is so difficult for me to beat my depression now is because I kept it in for so long without anyone knowing, not even myself.
The denial phase?
I don’t think I went through that, my family did and still do though. For me, I wouldn’t call it denial, but I was so young that I didn’t know what was wrong. I knew I wasn’t okay and that something was wrong, but I didn’t label it.
What do you have to say to anyone reading this who’s scared to seek help?
I wanna say that a lot of people are going through the same thing right now. it may feel like you are alone In this, but you’re not. There is hope; there are a lot of people who know exactly what is wrong with you and know how to help. There’s no shame in asking for help. Tell someone, anyone… Don’t deal with this on your own.
What’s your motivational factor? Who or what gets you through the dark times?
My mom. Every time I’m thinking of giving up, I think of her. She went through so much for our sake. So the last person I wanna disappoint or hurt is her.
You are currently in your Third year of medical school. I’d say you’ve beat the odds
Awwww, thank you
What final message do you have for anyone out there plagued with mental illness and don’t think they’d make it?
This is a hard one. But I want to say that there’s always light at the end of the tunnel. And that light may not be what you imagine it to be. It may not be the cure to your mental illness. The light is a new perspective. A new way of viewing, coping. Having a mental illness can be very difficult and lonely but it is important to keep pushing. Never put that little spark of hope out, all will fall into place in the end.