Depression

Being Gay AND Muslim (Part 5 of “Being Me”)

“How can I acknowledge the existence of a God who denies the existence of my love?”

I’ve shared two individual posts in this series about being gay and about being Muslim as two separate parts of me. The biggest issue I’ve had, and the reason why understanding intersectionality is so crucial, is because these two pieces together have compounded the issues I’ve faced with my mental health. Being gay would be one struggle, and being Muslim would be another if in isolation, but together, the struggle is magnified.

If we go back to my plant analogy (click here), these are the two main plants I can’t seem to bring together. On the one hand, my religion has taught me so many great things and made me the person I am today. It’s taught me morals and given me guidance and security. On the other hand, my religion fueled the fire of shame that had to do with being gay. It made me feel isolated and wrong, or like I didn’t belong in the community that I always thought I could call my own.

When I was young, my mother told me I could marry anyone I wanted. She said it didn’t matter if they were Ismaili or Muslim, as long as they treated me right and we loved each other. I just had to make her one small promise in return: that we would get married in a Khane (mosque) in accordance with the laws of our faith (which basically was just agreeing to be good to one another). I agreed without missing a beat – it seemed easy enough.

Fast forward about a decade, and I’m trying to determine how I can come out to my mother, and break the one promise I had made her. You see, homosexuality is not accepted or recognized in my religion, so I’d never be allowed to marry a woman.

I’m sitting in the backseat of my uncle’s car, trying to get enough courage to tell her who I really am, and I don’t remember half the words I sputtered out. I remember two words distinctly though: “I’m sorry.” I started crying and said “I’m sorry I can’t fulfill the one promise I ever made you.” I felt like I had deeply failed her, like my sexuality was so bad, and like I was letting her down and disappointing her. Luckily, my mom is an absolute saint and she accepted me immediately because her love for me is stronger than anything else, but I was still sorry. In fact, I still am sorry. A part of me will always be sorry, even though I know it is not my fault at all.

The difference is, now I’m angry too. I’m angry that a religion that has always taught me to love and accept others can’t extend me the same courtesy. I’m angry that it has built a wall of shame and guilt around my heart. I’m angry that I feel forced to pick between two halves of myself. I’m angry that I feel like I have to pick one over the other, when both are who I am. I am angry that ignorance and tradition is prevailing over love, and it’s not right. I’m angry that when I go to Khane, I have to hide my sexuality, and I’m angry that if I had an Ismaili girlfriend or wife, we wouldn’t be able to hold hands or stand close to each other the way straight Ismaili couples often do in Khane.

The Ismaili community is so heteronormative, that many opportunities within the community are reserved for straight couples, and I would automatically be excluded from consideration. Homosexuality is not discussed within the community, and queerness is often ignored or made to seem like it doesn’t exist at all. In fact, my sister’s non-Ismaili boyfriend is acknowledged more within the community than I would be. A non-Ismaili can get married in our mosque, yet I can’t despite me actually being an Ismaili. So how can I be a part of this community when I fundamentally disagree with how they treat the queer community? How do I reconcile these differences when I feel deeply connected and disconnected at the same time?

I don’t understand how my relationship with God has anything to do with who I share my life with, and I don’t understand why people care. Religion (in theory) has always been about making people better, more thoughtful members of society. It’s been about creating welcoming communities and living by a moral code that we can be proud of, but somewhere along the way that got thrown out the window to favor devisiveness and the fragmenting of peoples’ conflicting identities.

When I first started to articulate this to my friends (or tried to) a lot of them told me to abandon my religion, because why be a part of something that doesn’t accept me? And on the flip side, when I briefly touched on it with my family, they told me not to pay attention to that part of my religion because I was loved and accepted by them. But you see, I can’t do either of those things, because you don’t get to pick and choose, and I can’t pick one of the other. Instead, I have to create space where all of me can exist, and frankly, it seems pretty impossible.

In Zadie Smith’s ‘Feel Free’, she talks about these “impossible identities”, and when I first read this bit, I cried so hard because it put into words what I had experienced my whole life. She says “It seems to me that people experiencing impossible identities – who find it impossible to imagine being, fore example, Muslim and gay…can build up a terrible tension within themselves.” That tension within myself has been a large culprit in creating a mentally unsafe environment inside of me. She goes on to say “we know that in the real world impossible identities are too often resolved in violence. The rope inside us is pulled so taut, strung between such apparently incompatible places, that we feel we must cut it. Most often this violence is internal: we kill some part of ourselves.” She’s right. A therapist once asked me which part of myself I needed to die when I attempted suicide. I didn’t understand what she meant at first, but now I do. I learned that my whole life I had been trying to kill bits and pieces of myself, until it got to be too much. When I wasn’t trying to destroy the Muslim part of me, I was trying to destroy the gay part of me. When I couldn’t destroy either, I tried to destroy all of me. The next part of Smith’s piece acknowledges that “we ignore we are gay, or smart, or masculine, or melancholy, or scared. We cut that bit out and live in a mutilated way. That is an intimate tragedy.

I don’t know how to make this impossible identity of mine work. I don’t know if I can 100% accept both, and although that doesn’t seem fair, maybe that’s okay. Maybe it’s just something I have to work on for myself forever. What I know now is that I can’t kill either, and it’s not okay that society expects me to. They are both a part of me in varying capacities, and to abandon either would be to abandon myself, which I have no intention of doing again. I’m learning and I’m growing towards myself. I hope that you, and the rest of our society, can do a bit more to grow too, so that in 10 or 20 or 50 years, our “impossible identities” won’t seem so impossible anymore.

Keep Surviving by Living.

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Being Non-White (Part 4 of “Being Me”)

In earlier posts, I’ve talked about how being Muslim has impacted how people see me, and for the most part, being non-white blurs with that. My cultural identity, and identity as a person of colour has been so tied to my religious identity that sometimes it’s hard to separate the two.

I don’t always like engaging in rhetoric that supports the idea that it always has to be a battle of white people vs people of colour. But I’d be lying if I said that the colour of my skin hasn’t impacted my mental health. Racism and discrimination isn’t always hate crimes and the vile things you read on the news. It’s not always perpetuated by white supremacists or the KKK, Sometimes, racism is decievingly innocent, and comes from those that have nothing but good intentions. But that doesn’t make it okay.

Most of my mental health struggles with being a person of colour stem from often feeling underrepresented. I never saw people on TV that looked like me (thankfully, that’s starting to change), there were no books with kids that looked like me, or had names like me, and most of the people I went to school with were white and didn’t share the same culture as me (nor were they genuinely interested in learning about it, aside from a Russell Peters punchline here and there).

Growing up in Canada is interesting, because although I didn’t necessarily experience blatant racism, there were subtle things I noticed growing up. Casual racism, or racism disguised as something else (be it humour, curiousity, or something else) was rampant while I was growing up, and still is. I remember when I was in middle school, we had to wear shorts in gym class. I noticed pretty quickly that my legs looked harier than the other girls, because my hair was thick and black and most of theirs was light and blonde. We were too young to start shaving, so I tried to pull my shorts over my knees and sit with my calves under my thighs. The other girls made comments about it once, and unsure of how to deal with my embarassment, I decided to make a joke out of it, calling myself a “gorilla”. They thought it was hilarious, and it became a casual nickname for me that stuck during gym class. I didn’t think about how racist it was. I didn’t think about how I was perpetuating that racism, and making myself feel more ashamed in order to brush past the fact that I didn’t fit in. It’s a pretty normal thing for any teenager to feel like they don’t fit in or don’t look like the other kids, but my experience was compounded by the fact that race played a role in it, and no amount of makeup or shaving could change that.

I didn’t always have bad experiences about the colour of my skin – sometimes people would be genuinely trying to show how culturally aware they were. People would often wish me “Happy Diwali!” or say “Namaste” to me to show their awareness of people of colour. I’d then have to politely explain that I wasn’t Hindu, and that somehow always offended them. Eventually, I stopped explaining because they wouldn’t understand what that meant anyways.

Sometimes the experiences are not as innocent. I hate flying – not just because the idea of being trapped in a tube 30,000 feet in the air is anxiety inducing, but because I always get checked at the airport. I’m always randomly selected for extra screening, or the security people aren’t as nice to me, even though I do everything I can to make it as quick and painless as possible. I always get to the airport extra early, so I can account for the racism and scrutiny I’ll face along the way. When I explain this to a lot of my white friends, they’re usually shocked because they’ve never been “randomly” screened before.

Somewhere along the way, I started trying to play up my whiteness, and diminish my brownness. I was so ashamed to be brown, and so ashamed to not be white that I began to “kill” my already weak non-white “plant”. I asked my mom to stop making more ethnic food, and demanded pasta, or lemon chicken. I’d ask my parents not to cook if I ever wanted to have a sleepover, and would hide our Bollywood DVDs at the back of the cabinet, showcasing the Hollywood movies.

We were driving a friend home once, and I turned the music on in the car thinking it was the radio, but it was a CD my aunt had made of indian music. As soon as I realized what was playing, I switched it as fast as I could to whatever was on Top 40. As soon as we dropped my friend off, I quietly put the CD back in and listened to it the rest of the way home.

God forbid any of my friends actually noticed I wasn’t white. Maybe it was because I thought I would be judged for it, and my friends would think I was weird or less than them. Maybe it was because I thought I’d make them uncomfortable. Maybe it was really me who was uncomfortable with exposing how non-white I really was. I wore nicknames like “Oreo” or “Coconut” (brown on the outside, white on the inside) like a badge of pride, when really it was just a shield from more shame.

The constant anxiety of wanting so desperately to be white, but not being able to be, still causes me turmoil. I wish I could say I’m so above that now, and never feel ashamed of my race or ethnicity, but I do and I have a lot of work to do to confront that internalized racism still.

I talk to my therapist a lot about never feeling like I quite belong, and how that makes me feel really lonely and isolated sometimes, like I’m the only one even if I’m surrounded by people. A ton of that has come from not being white, and looking “different”. It’s come from people reinforcing the idea that Canada isn’t my home, that I’m a foreigner and come from elsewhere. Even though it isn’t intended maliciously, every time someone asks me where I’m from, they’re really telling me that I’m not from here. They’re telling me I don’t belong. They’re saying I’m a visitor here, but I don’t have any other home to go back to. This is my home. Being brown in a white world is my home, and it’s all I’ve ever known.

I should also point out that it took me a long time to find a therapist that understands the impact being non-white has played in my life. Our mental health system is generally designed by white people, for white people, and the type of care optimal for white people is actually different from what works for people of colour. I’ve done a ton of reading on how in more “brown” parts of the world, mental health issues present themselves more physically than mentally. People report physical symptoms (headaches, stomach aches, etc) more than mental symptoms (hopelessness, sadness, etc) in Eastern parts of the world. This can significantly change the way we diagnose mental health issues, and could play a large role in why people of colour don’t get access to the mental health care they need. I experienced this when it took such a long time to make the connection between the physical symptoms I was experiencing, and my mental health issues. I also didn’t always get enough mental health care because I didn’t present symptoms in the way people expected (read: I didn’t present the same way a white person might). Finally, all my therapists have been white, and were working from their own lens which often didn’t recognize (or know how to address) how race and systemic racial oppression contribute to mental health issues.

I have a lot of friends that say they don’t see colour, and that they don’t see me as different because I’m brown. It’s a nice idea, but I hope they change, and start to see that I’m different. Because maybe if they can see my brownness, and accept it, then I can share my culture with them. Maybe then I can show them the songs I like to listen to, or the movies I watch when no one else is around, and introduce them to foods beyond just butter chicken. I hope they see that I’ve had to struggle with the color of my skin, and see that I’ve asked myself way more questions about color before the age of 10 than they likely have in their whole lives.

I often think about how lucky I am to be in a country where I’m not punished every day for the colour of my skin. I also think a lot about how it could be better. Some people think about how much easier or better their life would be if they had more money, or a nicer house, or lived in a different city, or were more physically attractive. I wonder about what would be different if I was white. Would I have different job opportunities? Would I have different people romantically interested in me? Would I travel more? Would I be less anxious, less depressed, less “damaged”?

Yeah, I wonder, but I’m also starting to embrace and love my non-whiteness more and more every day. I’m starting to engage in more critical conversations about race and ethnicity. I’m more culturally sensitive and aware, and hopefully more supportive to other People of Colour who are likely far more marginalized than I am. Finally, I’m starting to get excited about sharing parts of my culture with the people around me, because I think it’s pretty great, and maybe they will too. So, if you ever want to learn a bit more about my culture and teach me a bit more about yours, I’m 100% here for it.

Keep Surviving by Living.

Being Gay (Part 3 of “Being Me”)

When you learn about coming out as gay, it seems like telling other people is the hardest. It’s hard, but it’s not the hardest. The hardest is coming out to yourself, and it was something I couldn’t bring myself to do.

I always felt different from most girls. Why didn’t I have a boyfriend? Why didn’t I want one? I barely knew the word gay before I was a teenager. As far as I knew, “gay” didn’t exist. And when I learned it, it was always used in a derogatory way, and I didn’t have any gay friends. A tiny voice deep inside my heart started to whisper that could be the missing piece. It poked at me when I saw a beautiful girl, and cleared it’s throat when I saw two girls kiss on TV. Before I could even acknowledge that voice, my internalized homophobia saw that I had a new “plant” (see my first piece here if you’re wondering what I mean). I didn’t have any space for a new plant, or piece of identity, especially a plant that was vehemently rejected by the Ismaili part of me. Before the plant could begin to grow (and wither away), I threw it in the trash.

I was so concerned about the parts of me that were already dying, that it just made sense to kill this one right off the bat and put it out of its misery. But it refused to die. I did everything I could to kill it. I couldn’t even bring myself to say the word “gay” in my head, let alone out loud. I already knew that if I neglected something enough it would eventually become so small that I could ignore it. I stuffed the gay in me so far down until I convinced myself it didn’t matter. Yet again, I was telling myself I didn’t need love to be happy, and I could get through life without it. There was a deep shame that came with being gay, and it was a shame I was too worn down to carry. The thing with shame though is the longer you try to ignore it, the heavier it gets. 
 
I came out to my uncle first. He was gay, and made me feel like I wasn’t so alone. After denying it for so long, finally saying it out loud was harder than anything I’ve said before. And even after I said it out loud, there was a part of me that still didn’t accept it. Perhaps I could accept that I liked girls, but I couldn’t accept that the future I had built for myself, the future my parents had prayed I would have, wouldn’t be able to come true. I didn’t want to accept that with accepting my sexuality, I would also accept the baggage that came with it. I didn’t realize I was already carrying that baggage whether I wanted to or not. As I came out more and more, I realized that the reason it was so hard to come out wasn’t always because I was afraid of people’s reactions, but also because I was ashamed of it. I would never judge someone of see them differently if they came out to me, but I couldn’t make myself be okay with being gay even though I know there is absolutely nothing wrong with it and nothing to be ashamed of.

Members of the LGBTQ+ community are disproportionally impacted by mental illness or mental health issues, not because they just happen to be more genetically prone to them, but because they are often the victims of ignorance and discrimination in society. There is also an added layer of shame and guilt just for being LGBTQ+, and that can deteriorate a person’s mental health faster than anything else. From a young age, many of us are taught that LGBTQ+ people are weird or bad (see the original definition of the now-reclaimed word, “Queer”).

If we’re not openly taught to discriminate, we aren’t taught about LGBTQ+ people at all. Sex ed in school was heteronormative, and the movies, TV shows, books, and other forms of media I consumed when I was younger avoided LGBTQ+ storylines. As a result, I grew up without the language to explain and describe who I was. Without that language, I didn’t know I wasn’t alone, and I didn’t know that I wasn’t abnormal. Beyond that, if there is LGBTQ+ content in books or on TV, it’s reserved for an adult audience, as if exposing children to same-sex relationships is the same as exposing them to things that are far too sexual for their level of understanding. My heart knew I was gay long before I could watch content that was PG13 or 14A, so why couldn’t I have been taught that there were words for it, and people like me from a younger age?

Looking more into reality, why is it that I always knew which cousins or aunts or uncles were in heteronormative relationships, and met their significant others, but the significant others of LGBTQ+ family members were only referred to as “friends”? When I have a partner someday, will I have to hide them from the younger members of my family? Will I have to be this dark family secret that gets whispered about behind closed doors? Will I have to hold that shame in order to avoid showing that love can be good and pure, no matter who it’s with?

Due to years of constantly receiving messages (mostly unintentional, but impactful nonetheless) that being gay was a topic to avoid, or to only be discussed in hushed tones behind closed doors, I started to believe it was something to be ashamed of. Although I know better now, and every person in my life loves and accepts me no matter what my sexual orientation is, it’s hard to shed some of those old feelings. I remember thinking that my sexuality was a disappointment, not only to me, but to everyone around me. Luckily, that couldn’t be further than the truth, but the fact that I believed that for so long was enough to contribute to a more negative view of myself.

Even though I consider myself “out”, there are situations I’m not out in, Sometimes in a professional setting, I choose to not disclose my sexual identity because I worry that it could be a disadvantage. I worry I’ll be seen differently, or seen as less than, because these are still sad realities in our society. Going through life having to constantly wonder if being your authentic self will have negative consequences can get exhausting, and though I’m working hard to be proud of who I am, society doesn’t make it easier. My parents grew up in East Africa, where being gay is a criminal offence. In fact, in Uganda homosexuality is punishable by death. Though I never lived there, it’s still part of my cultural upbringing, and it’s difficult to embrace my culture when I know that part of it fundamentally rejects and punishes who I am. Despite being in Canada where being gay is totally okay, I’m still impacted by the thought that had things been slightly different, I easily could have been born in Tanzania.

Being gay has also made me more stressed or worried in situations that really shouldn’t be stressful or worrisome at all (a common phenomenon for miorities, referred to as part of “minority stress”). For many people, being in a relationship can make them feel more comfortable and safe. I’m sure that’s true for a number of LGBTQ+ couples as well, but for me it’s often been the opposite. When dating, I’ve always been worried about showing any public displays of affection, from holding hands to kissing goodbye, because I’m afraid that people would discriminate against me or be made uncomfortable. When I was in college, I came out to a bunch of friends in my first year not because I was ready, but because I was afraid they wouldn’t want to live with me if they found out I was gay and wanted to know their reaction before it was too late. I’m also constantly aware of how much affection and connection I show my femaie friends, so that I avoid the possibility of them thinking I like them. It started as a mechanism for protection, not wanting anyone to suspect I could be gay if I hugged them or got close to them. Once I came out, to my own surprise, I kept my distance even more to avoid the possible misconception that I might be romantically interested in a friend and that would make them uncomfortable.

Even now, I’ll pull away from a hug sooner rather than later, and sit further away on the couch than I need to. I even refuse to share a bed with my friends when they visit – I’ll opt for the couch or floor instead. You can see how all these thoughts and worries can get pretty exhausting. Physical touch with someone in your support system, even when platonic, can actually be quite healing and important when you struggle with your mental health. There’s a reason why being hugged or held when you’re upset is a common occurance – because it actually helps you feel better. Depriving myself of this when I need it the most has made it harder and more isolating when my mental health isn’t in an optimal state. I realize it’s silly to be so cautious and anxious about these things, and it’s something I’m working on. It might be taking longer than I’d like, but slow progress is still progress.

I’m still working on confronting my own internalized homophobia about being gay, and I’m very grateful that I’ve had a wonderful support system along the way. I couldn’t imagine dealing with all this, plus flagrant discrimination and hate. I think it’s going to be a lifelong process – to unlearn the harmful views I always held about sexual orientation, and to accept that a gay life is not a lesser life. It also means I’ll get to live a life full of acceptance and tolerance, but most of all, I’ll get to live a life full of love. What could be better than bursting with love, no matter who it is?

Keep Surviving by Living.

Being Muslim (Part 2 of “Being Me”)

I’ve grown up in a Post-9/11 world. I was 7 years old when the Twin Towers were attacked in New York, and too young to understand what it meant. What I do remember, is how that day changed my life forever. When the towers came down, so did our tolerance and acceptance as we stood with our brothers to the south. It suddenly mattered that I had brown skin and didn’t go to church on Sundays. My friends gave me funny looks when I told them I couldn’t go to their birthday party on a Saturday because I had religious education classes. “But Sunday school is on Sundays.” I eventually started to say “I have Saturday school. It’s like Sunday school but on a Saturday because we’re weird.”

For the most part, I really liked being a Muslim growing up. More specifically, I loved being an Ismaili Muslim. I would play with kids who looked like me at our Khane (a mosque), and their parents would use familiar words that my parents would use.

I was raised in a very Ismaili home, with Ismaili values and teachings, and for the most part, I think I was proud of it. After 9/11, my pride slowly started to dwindle as it was replaced with more shame based on the anti-islamic rhetoric from the media. The News captions on TV might as well have flashed “MUSLIM IS NOT, AND NEVER WILL BE, WESTERN” 
Over time, I couldn’t find that pride anymore – by the time I was a teenager, I was outright denying that I was a Muslim to my friends and peers.

I wasn’t raised to be a terrorist. I wasn’t raised to hate Western civilization. I wasn’t raised to be closed-minded. I was raised to be curious, and to pursue knowledge. I was raised to help others, and put my community first. These were the Ismaili values I was taught.

As I got older, I didn’t understand why people hated my people so much, and why they were so afraid. We were just like other people, except that we had prayers on Friday Evenings instead of Sunday Mornings, and Saturday School instead of Sunday School.

I got tired of constantly having to explain things (because more often than not, I was defending my religion, rather than explaining it), so I started using words that were “easier” for others to understand. I described The Aga Khan as “sort of like the Pope, but different”, and referred to going to Khane as going to “church” but it would be in the evenings. On Dec 13th, I would describe our Khushiali (our spiritual leader’s birthday) as “Brown Christmas”. I chipped away at parts of my identity to make it less confusing for others, so that I wouldn’t get so many questions.

After 9/11, Saturday School shifted from learning about our rich history filled with stories of benevolence and tolerance, to practicing how to be ambassadors of our faith. Every year, we would spend at least 1 class talking about how to talk to other kids about our religion. How to show them that we are good people. How to respond to bullies. How to respond to islamaphobia. How to explain our ideological differences, but more importantly, our similarities with our western friends. How at 7 we were learning on a micro scale to rise above the hate that was seeping in on a macro level. We learned to respond to violence with peace, hatred with kindness, fear with acceptance. We as the “moderate Muslim community” had to be the extenders of this olive branch, because no one else would. At every given moment, we were representing our community because if a crime was committed by one of us, we had seen how the punishment and responsibility fell on every single one of us, not just the perpetrator. It confused me – if we were the good people, why did I have to learn to defend myself? Why did I have to be extra careful to not get angry or upset when faced with hatred? Why did I have to be the peaceful, bigger, more mature person?

I learned to cope by making fun of myself, and my religion, to take away the opportunity from others. If someone would ask if I was Muslim, I would answer with “Yes, but don’t worry – not the kind that blows you up” because there had been too many times when someone followed up my yes with a joke about terrorism. I laughed along when anyone would mock Muslim prayers and quietly accepted the “compliment” that I’m “not like other Muslims”. I let comments about how I probably have no rights as a woman, and claims about how lucky I am to not be living in the Middle East under Sharia slide right off me. For the record – I was born and raised in Canada, I’ve never been to the Middle East, and my parents are from Africa.

I experienced ignorance from every corner. But I distinctly remember a time when I was faced with outward ignorance and discrimination from another Muslim. A Muslim from a different sect. I was 10 at that point, and started to cry as he yelled about how I was not a “real Muslim” because I was Ismaili. I could say nothing as he shouted things part of me believed, that we didn’t cover our heads or pray the way other Muslims did. Two of my friends ran to our teacher to tell her about the boy that was making me cry. She took us outside the class to talk about what happened. She asked me what happened and I explained that the boy told me I wasn’t a real Muslim, while he responded with “well she’s not, she breaks rules from the Quran!” The teacher was clearly overwhelmed, because addressing Muslim tensions were certainly not covered at any teachers college in Alberta. Probably not even in the whole country. She came up with an acceptable solution – the boy and I agree that this topic was not to be discussed again. She also explained that school wasn’t the place for these conversations, and that we were all classmates that needed to get along with one another. The boy did not mean any harm, and it wasn’t the first time that someone had questioned a part of my identity, but he represented something far more sinister. He represented the splintering within the greater Islamic community, which had caused wars for many generations before. He reaffirmed that my Muslim identity was on the fringe, just barely acceptable.

And so I learned that honoring one part of me would more often than not mean denying another. If I wanted to be more Muslim I would inevitably pull away from the more western ideals, and if I wanted t be more “western”, I’d pull away from bits of my Muslim identity. What I love about Ismailism is the ideal that western and eastern tradition can coexist – that we can cultivate this pluralistic mosaic where all the parts have a place. It’s hard to build that vision when most people in your life, on both sides, don’t fully see it that way. I started to wonder if maybe the media was right, and maybe we weren’t good people. Maybe I was bad. And as that sank in, I distanced myself from my religion more and more, focusing more on its faults rather than its good parts, until my religious identity was virtually non-existent. When college came around, I abruptly gave up what little commitment I had to my ismaili identity. I couldn’t wait to start “fresh” and be free of being connected to that part of me. I thought by denying it altogether, it would get rid of all the identity issues I had. But the years of denying who I was had already taken its toll, and now that I was free to accept who I was, I didn’t know how to do it, and I didn’t know who I was. How could I accept the person I had never bothered to get to know? 

Years of therapy has taught me that anytime you try to hide a part of yourself, or compromise your authenticity, things get messy. With that mess comes anxiety and depression, and feelings of disconnection or loneliness. The world around me was constantly giving me messages to disconnect from the Muslim part of me and I did my best to deny it for as long as I could, but it’s part of who I am. It’s going to take a long time to learn what that part means, or think about how to embrace that part of me, but it’s a step towards accepting all of myself. And that step feels really good.

Keep Surviving by Living.

Being Me: A Series on Intersectionality (Part 1)

Since being diagnosed with multiple mental illnesses, I’ve done a ton of research about it. I learned all the science behind it, what parts of my brain weren’t doing their job properly, what medications would alter what neurotransmitters to make things better. I treated it like a science project, because it had to be 100% science since my life has been pretty good. But I’ve spent the better part of this past year learning that isn’t always the case, and I’ve learned that who I am and what I am impact my mental health. I started looking deep into parts of my identity I didn’t think of before, and started trying to understand their place, and I noticed that a lot of my identity feels fragmented, because they are so different, and they don’t always fit together.

People like fitting into boxes because it gives them a sense of community. More than that, people like putting others into boxes and assigning them labels. Girl. Canadian. Muslim. Gay. Brown. These are some of my labels. Some I’ve given myself, some have been assigned to me. Part of my mental health issues come from having a ton of labels, and not knowing how they can coexist because of what society has said about them. I don’t know how they can cleanly coexist, and it’s been a messy process, but I want to share some of this messiness with you. Maybe you have some messiness too.

These next few posts will focus on intersectionality, and the parts of my identity that have undoubtedly influenced my mental health along the way. They may force you to check your privilege, and think about the parts of your identity that may have been worn down or denied by society. Maybe you’ll relate to my experiences in your own way, or maybe they will be things you never thought of before. All I ask is that you follow along with an open mind and heart, and I’ll reciprocate with open and honest communication throughout.

There is a concept called “minority stress”, which in simple terms, means that people who are part of a minority group can be more prone to higher levels of continuous stress that come with being a part of that group. This stress can make marginalized folks more likely to experience serious mental health issues and mental illness. I’ll talk about this a little bit more in some of the other posts.

I believe identity is a constant struggle – at least, for me it always has been. I don’t see it as a bad thing, rather that the struggle can be a catalyst for change and adaptation as we learn and grow. But it is still a struggle. It is a struggle to learn how to acknowledge and honor the conflict in parts of your identity – it turns a whole person into fragmented pieces that can be at war and don’t know their place and value. Eventually though, you can learn to build bridges between them, and those bridges are everything.

It’s a matter of learning to be more than one thing at a time, and giving each of those parts enough space to grow and be nurtured.

Imagine a garden with a finite amount of water and sunlight. You know you don’t have enough for every single one of your plants, so how do you pick which thrives and which dies? How do you get to justify it by attributing greater value to one plant, the plant that lives, because it means the “lesser” has to die. If you give a little water to each one, no plant gets enough and they all die. It may be a slower death, but they still die. You can’t win unless you get more water. That is the identity struggle when you are so intersectional – the amount of water you get isn’t enough, and it’s somehow your fault or problem that you don’t have more. It’s enough water for other people, because maybe some of their plants can grow in the same flower pot and find ways to share what water they need. Maybe they have symbiotic relationships and actually help each other grow. My plants are solo organisms – if placed together, they will destroy each other. The beta fish of the plant world, if you will.

My next few posts will focus on different “plants” in my life – different parts of my identity that shape who I am today, and how they’ve impacted my mental health. How they’ve made me stronger, but also weakened me, and how being intersectional can be a confusing and rich experience all at the same time.

Looking back, I believe that my suicidal ideation was born from a tiredness of slowly killing little parts of me to appease another. Watch the plants wilt away, watch myself burn from the inside out. Bit by bit, parts were getting chipped away. I got tired of choosing what lived and what died, tired of watching helplessly, tired of the idea of not being enough being constantly reinforced, tired of the shame, tired of my slow, painful withering. So it made sense to put off the inevitable, and finish it all in one full swoop. I convinced myself I was choosing me, all of me, not one small part that I was told to. But really, I was deeply failing each part by not giving it the opportunity to grow. I’m starting to take the long, hard road, and learn how to get more water. I want to learn how to make my plants adapt so they can live together. I used to think I could make my plants need less water. But now I’m learning that I deserve all the water I need for all my little identity plants. Sometimes I need help with getting enough water or watering them, and it’s okay to ask for help. If you have any “gardening tips”, I’d love to hear them 🙂

Keep Surviving by Living.

Moments and Milestones

I’ve been having a lot of milestones lately that indicate some pretty great progress. I spend a lot of time talking about the daily struggles, but sometimes it’s nice to look back and realize some of these incredible milestones, because they really take my breath away. These are very tangible milestones, such as it being 5 years since starting my blog, or 3 years since I was in a hospital, but there are a lot of milestones that I’ve had that I didn’t even know about. Slight shifts in my mentality or thoughts, small movements towards a healthier perspective, and new positive thoughts and experiences that I didn’t realize. Some of them were so slight that I only realized it months later, and some felt like they happened slowly and then all at once.

Healing takes time, and to see that this much time has passed since the worst of the worst, the more confident I feel. I still get scared about things getting bad, but it’s starting to feel more like a distant memory rather than a monster lurking around the corner, ready to jump out. Now, because of that, sometimes the bad days feel a lot worse, because I’m crashing down from a much higher place. It scared me at first, until I realized that it’s a good thing. In fact, it’s a huge step to be taken by surprise by a really bad day, because it means that they’ve started to become an anomaly, and not the norm. My experience with mental illness feels less like trying to sprint through a never ending haunted house, and more like a bit of a rocky boat ride, with highs and lows, but something I know I’ll get through.

There are still stormy seas, and the waters are deep and can be dangerous. I get a bit scared when they come, but I’ve weathered them before, and can remember what calm waters feel like. It’s easier for me to take a deep breath and trust that it will pass, because it’s passed countless times before. I used to exclusively experience sea sickness, but now the sea sickness subsides after a while, and I can enjoy the wind in my hair and the sun on the horizon. Sometimes the waters seem calm, and out of nowhere I’ll hit a patch of rough water that throws me off balance and makes my heart sink, but I navigate out of it with more ease than ever before. I’ve accepted that I can’t control the water, and by understanding the water conditions are never permanent, I embrace the fleeting and temporary nature of the moment. Because I’ve sailed rougher waters than most people I know, a clear day, even a clear moment feels like a gift. A gift I am beyond grateful for.

I’ve always been grateful for the second chances I’ve been given at life. I remember as soon as I realized that I was going to be okay (physically, definitely not mentally) after an attempt, I would have a rush of gratitude. That gratitude would quickly be replaced with fear and pain, and even sadness, but there was always gratitude. See, even though at that moment I didn’t want to live, I was grateful for a chance to find a reason to live. Grateful for the opportunity to fight another day (even if I was tired of fighting).

But, I wasn’t glad to be alive. I feel a pang of guilt saying that, and it might not make sense because of my above sentiments, but I really wasn’t glad. I felt like I had nothing to look forward to, and I didn’t think I could ever be happy. Part of me thought happiness was a myth that didn’t really exist for me. I was sad that I would have to keep fighting, keep going through my hardest days, and keep clinging onto non-existent hope that I could make it through.

When I was at my lowest, I didn’t understand what I was grateful for. I was just trying to find hope that someday I would understand.

I think I’m starting to understand.

I have moments now, moments that I’ve never had before, where I stop and think about how good I am in that instant, and how beautiful the world is. A few weeks ago it happened when I was out with friends, and I couldn’t stop smiling. I remember saying “I’m really happy right now” and I felt like I was a little kid. I paused and felt a rush of gratitude that I had been able to experience that. The other day it happened again – it was an ordinary moment that suddenly became so special. I had grabbed a coffee like I’ve done countless times before, and walked to the harbourfront. The sun was hitting the water perfectly, and no one else was around and I felt that rush again. For a slight moment, I forgot what it felt like to be depressed, to be anxious all the time. For a single moment, I was okay. I was happy. And I thought, if I could have one moment like that, maybe I’ll have another, and another, until there is a consecutive string. A few seconds later, reality came back and I made my way home, but the little spark of hope stayed. Hope that I wouldn’t just have to survive anymore.

Hope that I could just…live. And that feels pretty damn amazing. You might even say it makes me feel a little glad.

Keep Surviving by Living.

The Struggle with – LOOK, A SQUIRREL!

I have ADHD. Surprise! Who would have guessed, right?! Actually, to most of my friends, it’s pretty obvious. My train of thought is more of a streetcar on detour rather than a train, and my stories have virtually no end. But why did it take 24 years for a doctor to actually diagnose me?

When I was a kid, my teachers told me I was “gifted” and “above average”. I finished all my work before everyone else, and often got bored in class. Instead of acting out, I would zone out or work on something different. Sometimes it was writing stories, or reading a book under my desk. By the time I was in 6th grade, I was running a gum and candy business from inside my desk. I never really got in trouble, because my actual school work was finished and I was always the first to hand in my exams or in class assignments. My parents thought I was just bored because the content was too easy.

In reality, I struggled with focusing. I struggled with doing one task for an extended period of time, and would rush through tasks before my attention span ran out. There was constantly an attention hour glass that ran out just a bit too soon.When I was young, it was cute – I had messy writing, didn’t color in the lines, and couldn’t cut a piece of paper in a straight line. Everything was a race, and quality slipped through the cracks. As I got older, it became less cute and more annoying. School got harder, and I didn’t magically know all the answers anymore.

I tried to explain to my parents that I thought I had ADHD when I was about 12 or 13. When they took me to a doctor, I didn’t fit the usual ADHD bill. I wasn’t disruptive, I didn’t act out, I didn’t have bad grades. I wasn’t necessarily hyperactive. I just wasn’t disciplined enough because I had always had it so easy.

In university, I skipped a lot of class, because I barely got anything out of lectures, and when I was in class, I would be doing a million other things. I struggled with studying, and could only accomplish anything if I was having a “power hour”. I didn’t realize my “power hours” were actually a part of ADHD. In the ADHD world, it’s called “hyper focus”, which means that you have these bursts where you put so much focus into one thing, that the rest of the world is basically shut out. It was brilliant for writing papers and studying when it happened, but the problem was that it never really happened when I needed it to. Sometimes, it would happen when I was trying to work, but my focus was directed at something completely irrelevant. I always finished exams early because I could barely pay attention in a 45 minute lecture, let alone a 3 hour exam.

PC:”Auntie, Me & My ADHD” via Facebook

ADHD impacts every little bit of my life – from getting restless at work and needing to walk around every hour or so, to losing my keys, wallet, shoes, etc. to forgetting important dates like birthdays and social obligations. I lose track of more things than I can count, and find it difficult to follow through on a lot of things I commit to. It’s like being scatter brained on steroids. It’s also incredibly stressful.

This past year, my doctor asked if I ever had issues with attention and focus. I was seeing her because I had gone into a deep depression and my anxiety was out of control. Her question seemed irrelevant and surprised me, but when I did some of the diagnostic tests and realized I actually experienced a ton of ADHD symptoms, something clicked. It turns out that it’s really common for undiagnosed ADHD to manifest itself as anxiety and depression. We learned that part of the reason I was “treatment resistant” was because some of my anxiety and depression came from my ADHD. The stress of not being able to stay organized or the anxiety that comes with having a messy apartment (and let’s be honest, kind of a messy life), actually heightened my anxiety and depression.

I was actually quite relieved to get my diagnosis, but a big part of me was sad too. Why did it take so long to get diagnosed? What could have been different had I not struggled with my ADHD for so long without knowing? Could I have done more? Achieved more? Could I have avoided my depression and anxiety getting so severe? I’m not sure, and I guess I’ll never really know.

But I do know that we talk a lot about people being misdiagnosed with ADHD, and stimulants being over-prescribed, but we don’t talk nearly enough about how women and girls are often looked over and not diagnosed. The way that ADHD manifests itself can be quite different for young girls and boys – girls are more likely to retreat and disconnect, while boys are more likely to act out. Therefore, the boys get diagnosed because it’s a lot easier to see. Girls are more likely to be “inattentive” (like me), while boys are more likely to be “hyperactive”. We also think of hyperactivity as being a physical thing – like running around or being disruptive, but “hyperactivity” (in girls especially) can be more emotional – like having outbursts or emotion that don’t quite make sense or fit. This leads to the inattentive girls being labelled as lazy or stupid, and the emotionally hyperactive girls being labelled as drama queens or crazy.

Stimulants (medication for ADHD) can be dangerous and very easy to abuse, so it’s important that we are not over-prescribing these medications. It’s also important that we don’t under-prescribe to those who need it, especially girls who are already under-diagnosed. 

Now that I’ve bounced around enough, I should probably get to my main point which is this: a proper diagnosis can be absolutely life changing. And getting it sooner rather than later is really important, not just for medication, but because it can explain a lot. I struggle a lot with my self-esteem and always felt stupid or forgetful, but it was really just a part of my ADHD. It’s a lot easier now that I know what’s going on, but it was a long road to get here. When we let our knowledge of a condition be guided by misinformed stereotypes, we become blind to some important warning signs. When that happens, we let people slip through the cracks or misdiagnose them and treat problems with the wrong medications, which is dangerous and expensive.

Keep Surviving by Living.  

The Price You Pay

The cost of mental illness is now becoming more of a topic of discussion, as a way to propel the conversation forward due to the large economic costs to our society.

When we talk about it, we talk in terms of lost labour hours and wages, or the cost to our health system. We talk in macro economic terms because the problem is of such great magnitude that it actually can impact our economy. If you Google what mental health costs in Canada, you’ll learn that it costs our economy over $50 billion every year. You’ll learn that the cost of mental illness represents almost 3% of our nation’s GDP.

It’s estimated that 6.7 million Canadians are struggling with their mental health, vs 2.2 million dealing with diabetes and 1.4 million with heart disease (CMHA). Despite mental illness effecting 20% of the population, only 7% of our health care budget is spent on mental health.

But, I’d like to focus on the micro economic costs of mental illness – the costs we don’t talk about that impact how well or how poorly we can line our pockets. Because I’m angry about it. This post is not a happy one, but it’s a necessary one.

We know the numbers on the national impact of mental illness, but what about on an individual basis? How expensive is it?

We need to discuss these concerns, because it’s important that we acknowledge that accessing mental health care in our country is reserved for the privileged. Our public health care system is inadequate, underfunded, and overburdened, leaving those suffering to seek out private care options. Canada boasts being a country with public health care, but the mental health side is largely privatized. This points out one flagrant fact: our health care system does NOT see mental health and physical health as equally important. As a result, far fewer resources are allocated to mental health care and the ratio of needs to resources is grossly disproportionate.

Beyond that, the public health care system only provides support in a couple of very small areas – emergency intervention (hospitalizations) or PRESCRIBING pharmacological support (like anti depressants). A note about pharmacological support – you don’t have to pay for the doctor to prescribe it, but in order to not pay for the pills themselves, you have to have fantastic extended health insurance (so basically private). Personally, these two areas represent less than 10% of my actual mental health care needs. The other 90% is self funded.

So what does that 90% cost? Well, in the past year alone, I’ve spent almost as much of my money on mental health care as I have on rent. I maxed out my extended health converge from work within the first month.

It costs a ton of money – in fact, therapy alone is close to 2x what my annual university tuition was  (and I was in one of the most expensive undergrad programs).

In Ontario, the average income is less than $60,000, which is less than $45k after tax. The running rate for therapy in Ontario is $225 per hour. So if you’re an average person in Ontario and go to therapy weekly, you’re paying $12,000 a year. More than a quarter of your income is going just to therapy. Considering a good insurance plan for that income bracket is $1000 a year for mental health, you are covered for just over one month of the year.

The cost of mental health goes beyond therapy, however. There are costs I incur for physiotherapy and massage therapy, because the physical symptoms of mental illness are very real. That’s another couple thousand bucks a year. Since my illnesses are largely “treatment resistant”, meaning most medication doesn’t actually work for me, not to mention I’ve had horrible side effects from pharmacological support, I’ve had to use a naturopath to find more natural remedies and adjust my diet. So tack on another couple grand. When I do take prescription medication, it can cost hundreds of dollars a month. I remember being in university and being apprehensive about trying a new medication because there was no generic version, so it would cost me $400 a month. This past year I tried a new medication, and a trial of just 6 pills cost $45. Part of me was relieved when it didn’t work because I didn’t know how I would afford it otherwise.

Even without doing a bunch of math, it’s clear that having a mental illness is expensive. In fact, it’s basically unaffordable. And you might be thinking that there are some free programs available to people who really need it, and you’d be right. The issue is that those services are largely inaccessible due to them being over-burdened. Wait times are staggering and it can take over a year just to get an assessment for what programming you’d be eligible for. Then you wait again for a spot to open up in that program. When you’re struggling with your mental health, that wait time can quite literally be a death sentence. It would be like being told you have cancer, but you can’t get chemotherapy for another year, even though waiting could mean you die within that year.

When we find out someone is struggling, our first thought is to reassure them that help is available. But do we ever think about if that help is actually accessible? Do we stop to acknowledge the financial barriers that could get in the way of them getting help? When we tell people to get help, do we recognize that because the cost is so high, they may have to make significant life sacrifices? We shouldn’t have to ask these questions. People shouldn’t have to pick between taking care of their mental health or putting food on the table. In a country with universal health care, we shouldn’t have to open our wallets to buy access to services because the free services become basically useless when they’re inaccessible. But we do.

Until we as a society can finally recognize that mental health is just as important as physical health, we will always have to ask these questions. People will have to spend five digits annually out of pocket to take care of their mental health needs. Until we bolster our services enough to reduce the strain on current infrastructure, people will continue to slip through the cracks.

Keep Surviving by Living.

“Yes, and” not “Yes, but”

The concept I want to describe is one that I’ve never quite been able to put into words, so bear with me here. Luckily, I have a couple of very insightful and thoughtful friends who understood the concept when I tried explaining it to them, so I’m borrowing their words.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve tried to separate my depression from me. I demonized it and made it this big villain that wasn’t a part of me – it was a battle I had to fight, an enemy I had to destroy. Time and time again, I hear myself saying “I am not my depression” and how I’m not really myself when I’m anxious and depressed. I still stand by those statements…sort of.

I am not my mental illness, I am not exclusively my mental illness, but it is a massive part of me. It influences the way I act, the way I speak, the people I associate with. It’s in every deep breathing exercise I do, in every therapy session I pay for, in each conversation I have. It does not (always) consume me, but it plays an integral role in my life. As much as I would like to believe I am not defined by my mental illness, it defines a part of me. And that’s not to say that my mental illness has to dictate my life and I just have to accept that, but rather, it means acknowledging how this part of me is not a demon to destroy, but a wound that needs healing. It means acknowledging that though my mental illnesses have made life really hard, they’ve also allowed me to become a better listener, they’ve guided me towards people who have better intentions, they’ve taught me valuable lessons about the universe that some people may never learn. They’ve made me more fearless in knowing what I want and going after it.

I’m learning that because my mental illness is part of me, I have to learn to love it somehow before I can truly love myself. I have to love the beautiful bits, and the parts I think are ugly, and I have to try and see the beauty in the ugly. I can’t accept myself wholly or give myself love if I’m constantly vilifying a part of me that can’t be silenced or ignored.

Part of that process of loving all of me, is being loved by the people around me. Letting them love the good, the bad, the ugly. Being loved simply because of me, and not in spite of something else.

Let me make this part crystal clear: my mental illness is not something to be “looked over” or loved in spite of. I don’t need you to look past my struggles and mental illness in order to love me. I need you to see that there is ugliness in me, but that ugliness is just as worthy of love as the most beautiful parts.

I’m tired of the rhetoric that exists around being loved even though you have pain or baggage or struggles. I deserve better than “I love Ameera, but she has anxiety and depression”. It’s not something that diminishes how deserving I am of love.

I was really frustrated with this one day, and tried explaining it to a close friend. She understood what I meant immediately, and described it as needing people to say “Yes, and”, not “Yes, but”. It was a simple concept I learned in improv class – that when someone offers something in a scene, you accept it. Whether it makes sense or not, whether it makes the scene harder or easier, you accept it, and you work through the scene together.

Moving from language of “Ameera has depression and anxiety, but I still love her” to messaging of “Ameera has depression and anxiety, and I love her.” It’s reaffirming that I can be loved with what I have, rather than mental illness being something that should detract from the amount of love I am worthy of.  It’s a mixed bag, and you don’t get to pick and choose which parts you get.

Another example is when I have a bad day or I’m going through a rough patch and feel bad about it, and people (with only the best intentions) respond with how they know how I really am, and they don’t judge me for this part. They see that I’m actually this happy, funny, lively person and it’s “just the depression talking.” I really, really appreciate the sentiment that I am not my illness, and sometimes my depression and anxiety make me act differently. However, that depression and anxiety is a part of me too. They may be a part I try to hide a lot more, but they’re a part of my journey and my experience. They are not just something to be overlooked or ignored.

When we make our mental illnesses something to be loved in spite of, or we allow them to be ignored so we can be loved, we create the perfect breeding ground for shame. Shame that makes us hide who we are, shame that makes us hide our pain and our struggles, and shame that makes us feel unworthy of the love we need and deserve. It fosters guilt that we can’t be “enough” because we deal with these issues. And it’s not right. No one should be made to feel more isolated and guilty and ashamed because of their mental illnesses. There’s already enough of those feelings because of the mental illness alone, we don’t need the problem exacerbated because it’s easy to love the “good” and hard to love the “bad”.

I realize I’m basically contradicting myself by saying my mental illnesses don’t define me but also they totally do, and I also recognize that it’s difficult to be a positive support when you have to navigate a paradox as complex as this one. This journey isn’t an easy one, but it’s easier when we’re in it together. Even if the people around me don’t know what to say, just knowing that they can love me with or without my mental illnesses, because it has no bearing on how they feel about me, is enough. Reminding me that depression and anxiety don’t have to be looked over and brushed under the rug in order for them to still think I’m great speaks volumes.

Regardless of if you deal with mental health issues or not, think about who you love. Do you love all of them? Do you love them through the messier parts? Do you show up when not showing up is easier? If the answer is no, think about how you can make that move from “yes, but”, to “yes, and”.

If you’re struggling with mental health issues, and you feel like people have to love you in spite of what you deal with, or you feel you have to hide the hard parts so that you don’t lose that love, you’re not alone. That fear is totally valid. I hope we can learn to love the beautiful bits and the ugly bits of one another, and see the ugly bits as beautiful in their own way, so that we can break down the walls and boundaries built by bricks of shame and guilt. I hope you remember that you have pain and struggles, and you are loved. Not despite it. Not in spite of it. Not when it’s ignored. You are simply loved. I see your pain and your struggle, and I love you.

“Yes, and”, not “Yes, but”.

Keep Surviving by Living.

100 Posts of Surviving by Living

This is my 100th post on SbL. 1700+ days. 25000+ viewers. 85+ Countries. 20+ Collaborations. Two eye-opening projects.

Countless hours of writing. Even more hours of thinking and not writing.

Since launching, I’ve spent 6 days in a psych ward, made two ER trips, attempted suicide once (contemplated more times than I can count), tried 9 different prescription medications, seen more than 7 doctors or specialists, talked to 8 therapists, received 1 additional diagnosis, and had over 150 hours of therapy. Caring for my physical and mental health during this time has cost me over $25,000 out of pocket (and that’s with extended health care coverage/insurance). Every. Single. Penny. was worth it.

What I’m trying to say, is that it’s been a wild ride. And I’m so grateful to all the people that have stuck around for this crazy ride and followed along. And I’m at peace with the people who chose to leave, because they taught me valuable lessons, and were in my life for a reason at the time.

Whether you’ve been the one I go to when I’m upset, or have helped me get out of a funk whether you knew it or not, or even if you just tossed me a “like” on Facebook  every so often, thanks for being there. Thank you for accepting me. Thank you for making this “roller coaster from hell” a little more fun and a little less dark. Thank you for showing me that I matter, and not giving up when I don’t believe I matter. Thank you for seeing me. Thank you for giving me the platform and space to have my story heard. You’re teaching me that my story deserves to be heard. That I deserve to be heard.

In my very first post, I said I’d be sharing “more of my real story – not sugarcoated, not horribly depressing either” and I hope I’ve done that. I hope that you’ve learned a bit more about what it’s like to live with a mental illness, and more importantly, I hope that you think of your own mental health more.

Pursuing a better mental health state is a lifelong journey – that’s something I’ve learned the hard way. I’ll admit that I thought I could be fixed or cured, and that if I ever wrote a 100th post it would be looking back and saying “damn, what a wild ride. Glad that’s over!” And I’d be lying if I said that a part of me isn’t a little disappointed that the words I wrote in my first post ever, almost five years ago, are still pretty true.

I wrote: “If you ask anyone what type of person I am, common words used to describe me are “Funny”, “Witty”, “Intelligent”… Are these words an accurate depiction of me? Probably. On the outside, at least. Notice how none of those words showed any deeper emotion? I like it that way.

If you really wanted to know me, you would know that I have a tendency to overanalyze everything, my thoughts are my biggest enemy, I am stubborn as hell, and I grapple with mental illness everyday.”

Yep, I’d argue that still sums me up pretty well. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t made a ton of progress. I forget that a lot. I forget how much I’ve grown since I was a scared student who wrote about her mental illness in secrecy from the safety of her bed at 3am. While I may wish that I could have progressed more, and sometimes give myself a hard time for not having made it further, it’s important that I recognize the strides I’ve made.

I’ve transformed over the past five years and really started to own my story. I talk about mental illness to anyone who will listen. I commit my time and energy to teaching others about mental health, and work to reduce stigma and make people a bit more compassionate about these issues. I’ve even worked in the mental health sector, and have been affiliated with a number of different organizations supporting mental health over the years.

I’ve learned that no one has to go through this alone, and there should be no shame in struggling. I’m still learning that it’s okay to admit that I’m not okay and reach out for help. I still face the same demons I faced years ago, I just have a better support system, and know more about myself.

So I hope that these 100 posts have meant something to you. They’ve meant a ton to me. I’ve poured blood, sweat, and yes, even tears, into this process, so that maybe someone out there feels a little less alone. I hope that the words “Surviving by Living” mean more than they did before – that they’re more than three little words. They’re a way of life. They’re a commitment to striving for more than just survival.

Surviving by Living is not just a blog, it’s a promise to demand better for our future, so that we may enable one another to live full, beautiful, wonderful lives that are worth living. Are you surviving? Or are you living?

Here’s to the next 100 posts of Surviving by Living.

For the 100th time, Keep Surviving by Living.