Tuesday, 10 April 2018

Living with high-functioning autism: a vlog.

Vlog.

I made this video for a friend who is a 7th grade teacher in the US. She asked me to record a personal testimonial for her class. I figured I might as well share it with a wider audience.


Thursday, 1 March 2018

This small great loss

I have long hesitated to write about this, because it is deeply personal and painful. But it is time.

In early November 2017, I noticed a change in my body that I had never experienced before. My breasts felt bigger and swollen. I have known my breasts since I was 16, and they had never felt like this. My mother had told me years before that she knew she was pregnant, not because of a missed period or morning sickness, but from the way her breasts felt.

My period wasn't due yet, so I had to wait about a week. I woke up very early that Saturday morning, and just couldn't wait anymore: I took a home pregnancy test. It came back positive. I remember climbing back into bed and whispering to my partner, "Are you awake?"

The following week, I booked an appointment with my doctor, and she confirmed I was 6 weeks pregnant. I was overjoyed.

We had been trying for a baby for a long time, so you can imagine how excited we both felt. It was difficult not to get carried away. My partner expressed that he felt joyful and serene about being a father. We chose a boy's name and a girl's name. I talked to my baby a lot. I called it Peanut. I told them we were so happy they were finally here. I told them about about my partner, about my friends, about my work, about my family. I loved them already.

The following week, I noticed some light spotting, so I called my gynecologist. He reassured me that it was very common, nothing to worry about. So I put that nagging little fear at the back of my mind.

On the Thursday evening, I went to the bathroom. There was a lot of blood in my underwear. I started muttering, "No, no, no, no, no, no" over and over. When I wiped myself, there was something on the paper that wasn't a blot clot. It was no bigger than a grain of rice.

I had seen enough embryo development photographs to know what I was looking at. I knew I had just lost my baby.

I booked an appointment with the gynecologist. He was again very reassuring, saying bleeding does not equal miscarriage, and dismissed what I had seen. "Women always think they see something". There was nothing on the ultrasound, and he still was reassuring - at such an early stage, it's hard to see anything. Better wait for the blood test results. I clung to his words, to hope, but deep down, I knew. And sure enough, my pregnancy hormone levels were dropping dramatically. My gynecologist downplayed it, using words such as "chemical pregnancy", "a small miscarriage", "too early to call it a real pregnancy anyway". Maybe he was trying to be comforting, but it hurt even more to hear my grief dismissed in such a way.

I cried for days. My partner was at loss, because he hadn't felt it all happen in his body. To him, it felt more like another failed attempt. But to me, it was devastating.

The first time a friend of mine referred to my miscarriage as "the loss of your child", I cried with relief. What I had seen that day, no bigger than a grain of rice - my child. I felt my grief was finally acknowledge for what it was.

Weeks passed, then months. I reached what would have been the 12-week mark, the moment when the miscarriage risk is supposed to decrease, the moment most people choose to make the happy announcement. And I cried and cried. I still cry now. I miss my pregnant body. Especially, I struggle with newborns and very small babies. Two of my colleagues recently gave birth and joyfully brought their child to work - I am happy for them, but I simply cannot look at, let alone hold, their baby. I do not know how much longer this will last.

What has amazed me even since is the amount of women who have told me these simple words: "It's happened to me too". My mother, my grandmother, friends, colleagues, refugee ladies. I had never realized it was so common. Between 1 in 3 and 1 in 5 in the first term - but this means nothing until it happens to you, and until you hear your sisters tell you how they suffered the same loss. And yet, not one really talks about it. Everyone tells you how how wonderful it is to carry another life inside you, how amazing it is to be a mother (and stories of how exhausting it is, and how it takes over your life!). But no one warns of you of this terrible grief you are actually quite likely to experience. No one tells you that you might suffer a loss that may be tiny in size, but leaves a huge hole in your heart.

This is why I am writing this. We should not hide it and pretend it never happened, pretend that the baby we started to love never existed at all. We should be able to talk about this and grieve together as sisters.




I put my baby in a small box, to bury in our garden.

Sunday, 25 February 2018

Why I went to see Black Panther twice


*Beware:  spoilers*

I was really excited about seeing Black Panther, and when I did, last Monday, I loved it.

I loved the issues it addressed such as, "Should a wealthy country shut itself in to protect its way of life, or should it help others?" It touched my heart for very obvious reasons - after all, I work among refugees.

I felt encouraged to see so many positive, funny, smart, powerful (in the good sense of the term, not int the political sense) Black male AND female characters. I loved seeing those female warriors kicking ass!

I loved seeing what *could* have happened if African countries had been able to benefit from their own natural resources and build national wealth from it, rather than having it robbed from them by colonialists.

I felt moved by the villain's storyline and felt sympathetic to a lot of his grievances (even though I disagreed with his methods to try and put things to rights). He was a very human and relatable character, I thought. And when he said, "the world will be reborn, and this time, WE'll be on top", I felt deeply the pain of a people who have been oppressed, enslaved, exploited and discriminated against, not to mention having seen their resources plundered (including by my own country) - and yet I felt a pang as I thought, "As long as someone is on top, it means someone is at the bottom". And so what the villain wanted to create, no matter what his initial motivations were, was another injustice.

I loved how, when Jabari leader M'Baku is offered the chance to take the Black Panther's power by taking the Heart-Shaped Herb, he chooses to help T'Challa instead, when he could so easily grab power for himself.

And especially, I loved hearing the king of Wakanda's speech to the United Nations at the end:

Wakanda will no longer watch from the shadows. We can not. We must not. We will work to be an example of how we, as brothers and sisters on this earth, should treat each other. Now, more than ever, the illusions of division threaten our very existence. We all know the truth: more connects us than separates us. But in times of crisis the wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers. We must find a way to look after one another, as if we were one single tribe.

So I decided to take African asylum seekers to see it as a treat.

And then the debate begun as one of my colleagues argued that only taking African people see it was unfair. Well, yes and no. We are organizing special activities on Women's Day, for example... and you could argue that's unfair. But the reason we do it it to do something nice for people who have been oppressed one way or another. I thought this movie was uplifting and positive for the African community. We ended up going with 14 African people of both sexes (from Guinea, Sudan, Burkina Faso, Rwanda, Angola), one Iraqi guy and a young Albanian girl. They loved the film. They giggled when T'Challa freezes upon seeing his ex-girlfriend Nakia. They roared with laughter when Shuri points to T'Challa's sandals, asking, "What are those???" They loved it when Agent Ross tries some whitesplaining on M'Baku, the Jabari leader, who proceeds to silence him by barking at him, together with his guards. They even applauded when the movie ended.

On the way back, I was driving the van and I remained silent. I could have told them why I took them to see this film. I could have told them what I loved about it, what my favourite moments were. But I decided not to. Because it was their film, their moment. I wanted to give them ownership of it and not rob it from them by putting my white words and emotions on their experience.

So I listened to them chat excitedly about it, discussing which countries and tribes inspired the costumes. And then, one of the guys said, "That was good." His friend approved, "Yeah, that was good". And in that moment, I felt filled with joy, as when two other guys came up to me before going back to their rooms, saying, "Thank you for taking us. It was your idea, thank you."

#OneTribe


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.