There was no single word for how I felt. Dead inside. Different. Lonely. Cold. My body felt like it wasn’t my own, like a corpse I was inhabiting for a brief period while my soul, I dragged in tow, an anvil at the end of a chain I did not fasten but could not break.
I was 12. It was the 1990s in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. And there was no single word for it.
Reading old journals, I realise that many of my feelings of hopelessness and sorrow, of difference and loneliness, stemmed from being, in my own words, “a girl” (an old diary entry of mine lists “Things I Hate”, and the first bullet point reads, literally, “being a girl”). Put simply, I knew that the environment in which I would grow into a woman, was one that saw me as an object, something inferior and sexual, incapable and unfree. Looking forward to a lifetime of that made me numb.
I eventually learned that there was a word for the weight I carried and for, eventually, the nothing I felt.
Sometimes, it arrives like a storm that leaves a flood in its violent wake. Other times, it trickles. Gently. Like a leaky tap into a basin. And one day, you might wake to feel an inexplicable, or perfectly explicable, weight of sorrow that makes life seem impossible. Yet other times, it arrives in ways that cannot be reconciled with these arbitrarily watery metaphors. Different people experience it differently, but without a name for the experience, I did not know what it was or what to do with it.
There is a power in naming a collection of phenomena as symptoms of an illness, a moral and social recognition of an experience of dis-ease. A label can bring equal parts terror and relief.*
Without a name for how I felt, I imagined that I was alone. I did not know I could ask for help.
A few months ago, an Instagram user known only as “Fatima” published a post that read simply, “I’ve been too depressed lately, I want to give up on life. I can’t eat, I can’t sleep, I can’t enjoy anything…”
A few days later, more information appeared:**
“I am a Saudi woman in my 20s. I am an outcast in my family and my society.
Being born in Saudi as a female is in a lot of cases a prison sentence, the law is anti women here…Men have complete control of our lives.”
After sharing her specific story, she concluded with:
“I am severly depressed…. I want to leave here, I want to run away and live a proper life, I want to study and be succeful. If I don’t leave I will die here sad and alone.”
I have not verified the account. I do not know the person behind it. But the description felt so familiar that I thought it important to share on my own account, after asking her permission. When I did, another user commented, “This is sad because I find her story so normal to me.”
There is a mental health toll of living with discrimination, with the abuse sanctioned by that discrimination, and with powerlessness to change one’s life; put differently, there is a mental health toll, one that is perhaps poorly documented or poorly publicised, of living in a socio-legal environment that makes escape from discrimination and abuse impossible. To be clear, this extends to all women in Saudi Arabia to varying degrees, including – especially – migrant workers who contend with additional layers of discrimination, abuse, and control.
The situation and its consequences are not unique to women in Saudi Arabia, or to women, or to Saudi Arabia. Nor are those consequences ubiquitous among women in Saudi Arabia. They are, however, familiar to me, from my own past and from my online networks.
A group of brilliant women have collaborated to put together a guidebook in English and in Arabic for mental health resources in Riyadh. The book is another step toward recognising mental health issues, dismantling the silence and stigma that often surround them, and providing open access help to those who might otherwise suffer in silence.
Perhaps, the next steps will be continuing to reform the society that, for some, brings about or exacerbates such issues.
In the meantime, please don’t suffer in silence. Please reach out. Please ask for help. Please be kind to yourself. Please remember that you’re not alone.
*A disease, after all, is both a biological and social construct, an objective reality and a social interpretation, and to some, it is either a biological or a social construct. Those interested in the definition of disease should read the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry, “Concepts of Disease and Health”, as a starting point. (…or the first 50 pages of my PhD dissertation.)
**I share the excerpts as they appeared.
Image: Painting by an unnamed girl in Saudi Arabia who was ten years old when she created the work and whose older sister shared the image on Twitter (under the Twitter handle: @m_hqxx).