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.

Depression.

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).

7 thoughts on “There is a Word for It

  1. Thanks Moudhy for this precise but depressed article. I escaped Saudi 10 months ago and I’m still struggling with my inner issues. I’m not confident enough to meet or make new friends. I know I need to seek help from professionals but whenever I try to do so I get into miserable time remembering things that I’m trying to neglect and forget. I keep myself busy with work and I know it is not going to resolve my real problem in long term. Again, thank you for reminding me that I’m not alone.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Sara, Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and experiences here. I’m glad to learn you found a way out, and I understand how painful it can be to revisit the past in the hope of trying to move beyond it. It’s not easy, and there is no right way to face pain and/or move forward. It’s especially hard to rebuild confidence after living in a place that does everything it can to destroy a woman’s confidence. You must be a strong woman to have survived it, escaped it, and found the will to build something new.

      Reaching out in any way can help, including online, so I’m grateful that you reached out here to share your story. And if you ever want to reach out again, you can always reach out to me on social media, or by e-mail (moudhy at gmail dot com). You are not alone ❤

      Liked by 1 person

  2. You’re an amazing, strong person not only to be a survivor of your experiences, but also to take that and create such good from it— to have the courage to share, be a voice for the many silent screams, give strength to those who may still be too pained, and remind us all of the power of words and truth and the women who speak them.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, B, coming from someone who is a light in this world and was a light for me through so many dark years, that means so much to me. I hope that by being open about these experiences, it will make at least a few people feel a little less alone and, maybe, encourage others to open up. Silence is never the answer. Thanks for reading the post, B ❤

      Like

    1. Thank you for reading the post, my friend, and I am sure that whatever your story is, you are an incredibly strong woman to feel the things I wrote about – things that so many people feel – and still feel hope. “Everything that is done in the world is done by hope.” – Martin Luther King. Solidarity, sister. You are never alone. ❤

      Like

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