“You should go see a counselor,” I told Sara Al Fadaaq, a freshman at Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar and a resident in the building where I work.
“If you’re Qatari, it’s frowned upon,” she replied.
No, it’s not frowned upon only if you’re Qatari. It’s frowned upon in Pakistan too, where I come from. It’s frowned upon in the United States and elsewhere. It’s a problem that cuts across cultural divides.
But what is counseling, really? Do you really need to be mentally ill to have a counselor? And if someone is mentally ill, looking down upon the idea of seeing a counselor essentially means looking down on the mentally ill, doesn’t it? Maybe it’s frowned upon because it’s human, and as humans, we have little compassion for ourselves or anyone else.
It exasperates me when people dismiss mental pain. It’s almost as if you have to have a broken arm or leg to validate hurt, and only then it’s okay for you to hurt.
From when I stepped into my teenage years, I couldn’t remember a time I cried because of physical pain. I have, however, cried because of bad memories and feelings of despair the physical pain conjured up.
About two months ago, I injured my foot. I laughed my way through the hospital, until I came back to Northwestern University in Qatar (NU-Q). I couldn’t walk, and I had never used crutches before. In the end, they were more trouble than help. Aaleeya Spence, the student affairs coordinator, who took me to the hospital, had to force me to go back to the dorms.
But I didn’t want to go to the dorms. I wanted to keep my 3:30 p.m. meeting with Patti Collins, the health and wellness counselor, and getting on the bus and going back to my apartment meant defeat.
“I don’t wanna go back to Shamali (female dorms),” I said to Ralph Martins, a junior at NU-Q who was helping me back, and who, kindly but against my wishes, refused to help me back into the NU-Q building.
“I feel so defeated right now! I feel so defeated!” I exclaimed – bursting into tears – as we neared the dorms.
It wasn’t my foot. It was that feeling of defeat. That’s what hurt.
Spence probably still doesn’t completely get why I insisted on seeing Collins that day. I needed to see her to not feel defeat. I needed to see her to not feel like I lost to an injury. I needed to see her because I didn’t want to let anything get in the way of what I had planned for that day.
Collins called me when I got back to my room.
“I didn’t wanna let that unfair thing win,” I told her.
“When you’re saying that the other thing has won, you’re also saying that you have lost,” she said. “If I got hurt, would you tell me ‘You weenie?’ Would you say that to me?” Collins asked.
I wouldn’t. Of course I wouldn’t, but why didn’t I have the same kind of compassion for myself?
“You’re hard on yourself,” Sophia Vogel, my apartment-mate, told me when I decided to go to work the next day.
I silently agreed with her. I was hard on myself. I was hard on myself a lot of times – always pushing – always making sure I didn’t let anything cripple me. This time, I was adamant the injury couldn’t win. But this wasn’t a competition, was it? When things went smoothly, I would get afraid of mucking it all up and that harshness towards myself sometimes kept things smooth. Or that’s what I thought it did, but things went wrong nevertheless. Things always went wrong.
Counseling, to me, is taking care of myself. It’s being kind to myself. It’s taking a step back from everyday hassle and listening to myself – listening to that endless berating in my head and catching myself doing it.
I’m trying to recall the first time I went to see Collins, but I can’t put my finger on exactly why I went. Maybe I was running late for my morning classes, or maybe I missed a morning class. Maybe I even missed an early morning exam. I know I was agitated and wanted that agitation to go away. It wasn’t going to take a day or two to ‘fix’ myself, or tape all of my pieces together or break them all apart if necessary. I knew that; I started seeing Collins weekly.
It’s been more than a year now. I’ve learned so much – I’ve grown so much. I can trace the roots of a feeling back into my past, and I’m still constantly growing – constantly moving forward.
I know I sometimes use my laughter to protect myself, but I did it unintentionally until Collins pointed it out. “You laugh like that when you’re embarrassed,” she told me. That laugh says ‘Hahaha, I’m embarrassed, but I don’t want you to know that.’
I have a lot of different kinds of laughs for different purposes. I have a suffocated laugh that says ‘I’m hurt, but I forgive you.’
The loud laugh I have is the normal kind —the one that says ‘This is bloody hilarious!’
A year ago when anyone asked me how I was, I would reply with a spontaneous “I’m perfect!” and I would mean it too. But that wasn’t real. Nobody and nothing’s ever perfect, and to say that I was instigated a need for me to be perfect all the time.
I don’t say “I’m perfect!” anymore. I say “In this moment, I’m happy” instead. It became a habit to say “I’m gorgeous!” too this summer, but when fall semester started and the NU-Q faculty asked the same courteous question, I had to take a moment to choke back my “I’m gorgeous!” and say something more appropriate as “I’m good.” Sometimes, I just say “I’m okay” when I’m lazy, but I pay attention to myself now when the question’s asked. The answer’s not impulsive.
I’ve definitely eased up on the obsession with perfection. It’s an achievement for me to be able to write just now, sitting on my bed with two of my skirts lying on it waiting to be hung and tucked away in the closet, and the unfolded sheets waiting to be put away in the drawer. I even spilled some salad dressing on the floor but chose to allow myself to clean it later, because right now it’s more important that I write and get this column in on time, and then finish my Statistics assignment too.
It used to bother me that every issue I had, Collins linked back to my family; every emotion I felt in my today got linked back to my yesterday. Not everything in my life was because of my family, I told her. There were other parts of my life too – happy parts – that equally affected me. There were books I read and reread when I needed optimism. They taught me kindness. There were friends – good ones, bad ones; and there was teenage love – one or two teenage heartbreaks – that molded me.
I would sometimes get frustrated enough to punch or kick a wall. It was never hard enough to cause any serious damage, though one time my doctor said I gave my foot a “traumatic thump” that needed crepe bandage.
When I met Collins around a month ago, I told her this kind of frustration could be traced back to my relationship with my family.
“This time, it was you who said it, not me,” she said.
There’s a box. There’s a wooden box inside me that holds all the past hurt. It sometimes morphs into a bubble, but whatever its shape, today’s hurt pokes holes into it. Sometimes that wooden box leaks and sometimes that bubble bursts. Collins said it still hurts, because it hasn’t been talked about enough, and maybe one day I can talk about it, and it wouldn’t hurt. Maybe.
Some of my friends don’t go to a counselor because they think it makes them weak. But do they know how much strength it takes to raise one’s hand and say “I got a problem?” Or just admit to hurt? Or just stop for a while and breathe?
It takes a lot of strength to make ourselves vulnerable. It takes a lot of strength to tell the world we’ve been hurt and we haven’t always been happy every minute of every day. And we don’t even have to be hurt or damaged or broken. We need to give ourselves some space in time where we dump all our feelings and talk our hearts out. Because this world is chaotic, and every day we try to find our way through the chaos – juggling sanity with madness. After all, aren’t we all insane? Haven’t we all lost our minds?
*An abridged version of this piece was published in The Daily Northwestern on November 4, 2014.