Friday, 22 September 2017

Voices of refugees: "I was so scared"

"My name is Amal*. I am 13. When I grow up, I would like to be a singer, like David Bowie. I love David Bowie. I cried when he died.

In my country, some people wanted to marry me to an old man. So my family decided to go to a place where girls are not forced to marry. My Dad went first because he thought it would be easier to make us come to Europe. Only, when he got there, he saw that it would take too long. So he contacted my Mom and told her to use the rest of our money to escape with my sister Farah* and me. 

At some point the smuggler pushed me in a car, but Mom and Farah didn't get in with me and I cried out after them. The man told me not to worry, that they were in another car and that they would rejoin us once we passed the border.

He lied. He just left them behind, and after that I was on my own for the rest of the journey. I was so scared. But eventually, my Dad found me thanks to a missing persons service here in Europe, and they sent me to the camp where he was staying.

I go to school now. I think about my Mom and Farah every day. I hope they could hide because Farah is old enough to be married as well now. I wish they could come here too but it's impossible. It makes me cry a lot.

I never want to get married, ever."

(*names changed to protect privacy)

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Wake up.

I have been saying for a while now that the rise of fascism worries me. When I say this, friends and relatives look at with a patronizing smile and I can tell they think I'm over-reacting.

Yet, recent events show that there is real cause for concern. What happened in Charleston is a prime example. A Christian author who came as part of a counter protest writes this:

"Many came dressed in white shirts and khaki pants, reminding me of office workers or WalMart employees. Many wore helmets and carried hand-made shields. They looked like they came expecting to fight, threaten, and intimidate. Some came in paramilitary garb, heavily armed."

In the US, White supremacists are uniting in an organized way, expressing their ideas proudly, and coming to demonstrations armed and ready to fight. In Europe, they are openly declaring themselves; they organize boot camps to train; and raise funds to launch a boat whose sole purpose is to send refugees back where they came from.

I you wonder what you would have done during the rise of Nazism in Germany, YOU ARE DOING IT RIGHT NOW. 

Are you looking for scapegoats for everything you feel is wrong in today's society? In the 1930s, it was Jews, today it's refugees, Muslims, Blacks, Hispanics, oh and Jews too for good measure. 

Are you just living your lives in indifference? Do you shrug it off or turn a blind eye?

Or do you speak out, do you extend to hand of friendship to people who are different to you, do you educate yourself?

If you care about people's lives, if you strive to love and accept people no matter where they come from, please wake up. This is happening.

WAKE UP. Fascism is on the rise and human lives are at stake. Wake up.

Friday, 11 August 2017

Battling depression: down in the dark and out the other side

As I wrote in my previous post, entering adulthood was a lonely experience for me. I felt depressed quite a lot, but a work-related burn-out and a break-up finally were the final straw and I spiralled deep into depression.

I was out of a job. My doctor advised me to exercise, so I went outside the house and walked for 3, 4 or 5 hours. However, I spent most of that time brooding about all my perceived failures, so it didn't help much. My sleeping patterns gradually got completely messed up - I would get up at 3pm and go to bed at 4am.

I had no energy at all. I felt empty - physically, mentally and emotionally. Even showering was too draining some days. Sometimes I would fall asleep on the sofa (I literally could not help it, I felt so drained and heavy-eyed) and sleep for hours, and I'd still feel tired when I'd wake up. I found no joy in the things I used to enjoy. For instance, I am an avid reader but back then, reading a book was too mentally exhausting. I also lost my appetite, even though I normally love food. But back then all I could manage to eat in a day was a small piece if toast and maybe an apple. My very skin felt heavy, dragging me down. I pictured my own death over and over - either contemplating suicide or wishing to die in an accident. It felt like only death could finally make the dull, constant pain in my soul stop (which I once explained in another post). What stopped me from doing it was knowing it would break the hearts of my loved ones.

As a treatment, I was put on antidepressants (Citalopram), which gave me the energy boost I needed to apply for a new job. I remember when I got back from the job interview, I collapsed on the sofa from sheer exhaustion and slept. Eventually, though, the antidepressants started to show their limits. They did not address the underlying issues that caused my depression. They also gave me a superficial feeling of happiness and of being invulnerable. I started to engage in risky behaviours. I drank too much. I slept around. But the fun I seemed to be having was only a shallow thing, an outer layer. Deep down, was still hurting, and empty, and drowning. I asked my doctor to reduce the doses until I was weaned off them. 

I want anyone reading this to understand that I am not saying, "Antidepressants are bad". I am just sharing what it was like for me personally - not two people are the same.

I went to see several counsellors, some of whom helped and some who did not. I also attended a Cognitive Behaviour Therapy course and it gave me some tools that at least enabled me to fonction at work, but deep down I still felt the same.

Yet, eventually, gradually, I started to get better.

A friend once asked me, "How did you overcome it?" I wish I had a simple answer. I don't. Antidepressants helped me because they gave me enough energy to find a job. Therapy helped me because it meant I could talk through stuff and understand my own emotions better. A handful of friends were present for me - they didn't have a magic formula to make me better but they were there and that was important. 

During that time, I received my Asperger's diagnosis, and finally understanding why I was different was a relief. Knowing myself better also allowed me to avoid overwhelming situations whenever possible.

At some point, I moved out of a big flat that was a drain on my budget and that lifted a big weight off my shoulders. I also joined a wonderful church where I finally felt loved for who I was and supported.

Not a single of these things explain how I got better, but all of them helped. I started finding joy in little things of life again. I distinctly remember sitting in my new house and realizing I felt happy for no particular reason, for the first time in years. It doesn't mean I was OK after that but it was a turning point, and things got better and better.

Today, I feel like I am the happy woman I always was inside, the one that was waiting to come out. It doesn't mean I am entirely free from depression forever, but I can say with confidence that I am happy.

Battling depression: the loneliness of not fitting in

A while back, I started sharing my experience with depression. Today, talking with a friend reminded me I never got around to writing more about it.

Throughout the years, I felt at odd with other people, those I perceived as "normal". I felt there was something deeply wrong with me, and I couldn't quite put my finger on it.

I was as lonely as a student than I had been as a teenager. When people my age were out partying, I was at home reading or studying. I wasn't invited and it didn't occur to me to ask whether I could join them. Instead of socializing, I would walk alone for hours in the streets of Brussels, dreaming my life away. I felt painfully lonely, and developed numerous crushes on boys that I never knew how to approach. The only way I knew was to tell them how I felt, with the immediate result of them pulling away from me. So, I imagined love stories that would never be.

Once I started working, the loneliness persisted. My Asperger's quirks meant that people viewed me suspiciously. At the best of times, they made fun of me; often they disliked me. I never socialized with my colleagues.

I never felt like I fit in in any job - I was like a square peg in a round hole. I felt inadequate no matter what I did and my self-esteem plummetted.

During that time, I met a man and started my first serious relationship (although that is a long story, for another time, possibly). As he was bipolar (with longer periods of being depressed than anything else), "caring" for him gave me some sense of purpose, but it was also mentally exhausting. I naively believed that I would love the depression out of him (not fully realizing I was suffering from depression myself). For the first time in my life, I experienced love and intimacy, but I never felt safe, because his depression caused him to react in unexpected ways and I felt he could leave me at any time.

I eventually took a postgraduate degree to become a primary school teacher. Teaching was a completely draining experience for me and eventually led me to a full-blown burnout. Soon after that, my boyfriend left me, and I sank into severe depression. The following years were arguably the most difficult in my life.

Saturday, 5 August 2017

Asperger's and empathy: feeling other people's sadness... or joy

Asperger's syndrome and autism are funny things. People often wrongly assume that we have no empathy, but this is a misunderstanding of our condition.

As I have stressed before, people with autism have social communication problems. This means we fail to read cues in people's facial expression, body language or tone of voice, that would indicate how they are feeling. Because of this, we can fail to respond appropriately to other people's emotions, or appear that we don't care. The reality isn't that we don't care, it's that we don't know.

It has been suggested that just as autistic people have difficulty dealing with sensory overload, they may struggle with emotions, too. Strong lights, sounds, touch, smells or tastes can be completely overwhelming for us. In the same way, we would feel other people's emotions too intensely.

I have autism, but I also have huge levels of empathy. I can struggle to read non-verbal language (although I am getting better at it), but if people verbalize their emotions, I feel deeply for them. When I realise someone is suffering, I feel an intense pang of sadness and anguish deep in my heart, together with the burning desire to make it better, to soothe and comfort the other person..

In my work, I am confronted to heartbreaking stories. And trust me, my heart breaks for them every time refugees tell me what happened to them.

But last night, empathy worked in another, unexpected way: I felt deep, glowing happiness on behalf of another person. One of my closest friends is going through a very happy experience - and I felt as though my heart and my very skin would burst with happiness. 

It felt like dancing in a warm summer rain; like the way music sometimes fills me up inside and makes me want to run; like electric energy running through my body. And for the first time in a long while I started stimming, because I needed an outlet for the strong emotions I was going through. I started bouncing up and down, then flapping my hands very fast, all the while feeling my body was not enough to countain all the joy I was feeling for someone else.

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Black Dog

Well, hello there, Black Dog.

I thought you'd gone away. I hadn't seen you in a long, long time. What are you doing around here, anyway?

I mean, you have no reason to hassle me. I have a wonderful partner and a job I love. I live close to my family. I feel fulfilled and useful.

So why are you lurking in the corner? Why do I see your fleeting shadow, on and off, blocking out the light? Why are your vacant eyes staring at me? Why are you gnawing at my heart?

Why are my eyes watering for no reason? Why do I feel so lost and alone, and why do I struggle to explain the unease and dull pain that creeps over me? Why does my strength fail me? I should get up, go see my Mum, visit friends, go for a run. I should talk to a friend. But you, Black Dog, are staring me into inaction and silence.

What do you want with me, Black Dog? Leave me alone. You're not wanted here. Go back to whatever dark place you came from. You're not welcome.

Sunday, 16 April 2017

Mary Magdalene (written 31/05/07)

I was there the day the sky went black.

The crows were keeping their grim watch over Golgotha.
His body hung like a rag doll: gone the radiant life, gone the loving kindness, gone the merry laughter.

My heart sank in an ocean of sadness, crushed by a hundred leagues of sorrow.

What have they done? Rabboni, my beloved master!

The source of my hope and joy was withering in the heat of men's hatred on Golgotha.

I had no tears although my heart lay shattered
on the day the sky went black.

The day after the Sabbath we went back to his tomb. We wanted to show our love and respect one last time.

But the stone that shut the tomb was rolled away. The tomb was empty. His body was gone.

My heart sank deeper. Couldn't they at least leave his poor, broken body alone?

I crumbled to the floor, sobbing at last, my chest shaking with hurt and grief.

Then, through my tears, I saw a man. I thought he was a gardener, until he spoke my name.


That voice!

Warm as a fire, soothing as honey, wholesome as bread.

His voice!

"Rabboni!" My beloved master! He stood there. He was alive and smiling at me.

I was there the day the sky went black. I was there also the day the sky opened up and life eternal poured through.

(from John 20:11-16)