PEOPLE & EVENTS
A Story Of Courage: Overcoming Depression Following A Terrorist Attack
Emma-Louise Maw is back with her column: Life Stories. "I was 9 years old... That day was very important to me because it was when my childhood ended."
Recently I had the pleasure of interviewing the extremely talented Julie-Ann Robertson. 23, bright, funny, courageous and witty. She spoke to me about her struggle with depression and her journey towards self-love.
YOU HAVE A PASSION FOR MOTIVATING OTHERS, HAS THIS ALWAYS BEEN AN INTEREST OF YOURS?
Currently, I work as a producer for the Chrissy B Show which focuses on interviewing people with mental health issues. I've always been interested in sharing stories and motivating people in regards to mental health, mainly because I've suffered - and still do struggle with mental health myself. The social constructs towards this subject have always fascinated me and I think sharing peoples stories help others to realise they aren't alone.
IN REGARDS TO YOUR MENTAL HEALTH JOURNEY, WHAT HAVE YOU STRUGGLED WITH?
I've suffered from extreme depression, self-esteem and body dysmorphia for many years. The depression stemmed from an incident I went through as a child and due to this I found comfort in food and gained a lot of weight. I’m a healthy size now, but I was a size 22. I think we are really rigid with our perceptions of what women and men should look like and I don't think social media is helping this.
YOU SAID YOUR DEPRESSION STEMMED FROM AN INCIDENT THAT HAPPENED AS A CHILD? COULD YOU SHARE WHAT HAPPENED WITH US?
It was Saturday 29th of May 2004.
I was 9 years old and fortunate enough to have expat parents that moved me around from place to place, which enabled me to see the world. One of the places we lived in was Saudi Arabia. This was just after 9/11 during the Bush administration. We lived in a military secure compound filled with other expats from various different backgrounds.
That Saturday I remember playing outside with my best friend near the back wall of our compound, we were suddenly shouted at to hurry and get into the house where my dad explained to me that we couldn't leave because something bad was happening.
It turned out that a person had come past the back gate where we were playing, past our house and slaughtered an unspeakable amount of people. Civilians were tortured and held hostage for days.
I remember looking up at the sky with the news helicopter above.
I remember the feeling of utter confusion.
I was 9 years old, I knew what was happening... but just couldn't comprehend the magnitude of it. This doesn't happen in real life, I thought. This can't be happening.
That night, before we left, my mom who was 6 months pregnant at the time threw me and my younger sisters into the bathroom, locked the door and whilst sobbing and holding us under each arm, prayed. We are Muslims, which I guess is quite ironic.
These extremists were killing non muslims. But it didn't matter what we were, we didn't fit their mould, so we needed to go. We packed everything we could and had to leave my father there for sometime after.
That day was very important to me because it was when my childhood ended.
DO YOU THINK WHAT HAPPENED CHALLENGED YOUR FAITH IN ANY WAY?
To be honest, for a very long time I just didn't understand. I couldn't comprehend why these people who believe in the same kind, loving spirit as I do have the right to coldly execute people. So yes I guess it did make me question my faith. Spiritually I questioned everything, but I feel like that is a good thing. I actually encourage people to question such things, I think it's important to question because that way you truly understand why you are believing in something.
Due to this, I think I now possess a more accepting and worldly view of religion. In my opinion, when it comes to religion there is no right and wrong answer, it's down to interpretation which is a beautiful thing. If people use this to torment others, that’s not interpretation that is just abuse of power and control with a very far reaching out justification. This is wrong.
TALK ME THROUGH YOUR MENTAL HEALTH JOURNEY AFTER THIS?
For a long time after, I just remember the world being a very different place for me. What I struggled with the most was the fact that everything kept on going... nothing seemed to change, even though everything had changed for me. No one was talking about it. It was on the news for a month and then... done.
My teenage years were not the greatest, from 9 to 17 I found comfort in food. We moved around a lot and one of the places we lived in was Russia for 5 years. There I faced some serious bullying from other girls. I didn't look like them, I'm half Arabic with curly hair and curves and they would put me down a lot for being different. It taught me grit and I'm pleased about this, but if a large group of people tell you that you’re fat and ugly over and over again you start to believe it. Now I know that this is down to lack of education but it didn't stop this hurting at the time.
In a weird way at my heaviest, I started feeling better mentally, it was kind of freeing... I started to accept who I was.
The second I became less self-deprecating I started to naturally eat less and lose weight. But then when I was 17 a close family member passed away quite young which was a massive shock to my system. So much so I felt like I needed to lose all of the weight as soon as I could. If I could have cut the weight off my body I would have.
This is when my obsessive behaviour began and I developed an eating disorder. I would eat the bare minimum and exercise excessively. This obviously helped me lose the weight but in a very unstable and unhealthy way. However, at the time I didn't see this as an issue because I was receiving such positive compliments and comments from everyone around me. So I kept going and lost 40 pounds in under a year. Then I was slim, but still severely depressed. I went to university and at my very worst I had a serious fear of going out anywhere, shopping, trying on clothes, changing my hair, putting on makeup... anything. I developed a phobia of looking at myself.
DID YOU HAVE A TURNING POINT?
Yes, I was in a mall with my sister, in a changing cubicle. I was sobbing and sobbing because my sister had just got a new haircut and she looked amazing... I remember thinking wow she looks so beautiful. I will never look like that.
It was in that moment I thought, ok, I need to see someone... I need help. I was 19, it had been 10 years since the terrorist attack and this yo-yo with depression, my weight and self-deprecation. It was my best year and my worst. When you're depressed it's like living in a haze, everything's grey and monotonous. Your senses, taste, everything is bland. My problem was the more I said to myself ‘no you can’t feel like this’ the worse it became. I used humour a lot to make myself feel better, to mask the pain.
DID SEEKING HELP GET YOU THE ANSWERS YOU WERE LOOKING FOR?:
For me yes it definitely did. For the first time, I had an arena to speak freely in where I could say anything, I wasn't being judged I was listened to and at first, that was terrifying.
Things were difficult to bring up, it took time. I learnt a lot there and dealt with a lot of past trauma. I learnt that when you deal with trauma at a young age it hinders the way your brain develops, the way you perceive things and I realised that things like being able to fully express grief, being able to fully acknowledge your worth, self-love, self-esteem were things that I was immature at. There are a lot of things that happen to people that they don't fully deal with. Counselling helped me deal with mine.
DO YOU STILL GO TO COUNSELLING NOW?:
After several counselling sessions, I went to Hong Kong to study and spent those 6 months working as well as thinking about what I really wanted to do and what made me happy.
I made good friends and dropped the negativity out of my life. Upon my return, I went to counselling but felt a lot stronger mentally. I wasn't depressed but I realised that my mental health was a journey.
For me, it is definitely a journey with no end stop and I’m fine with that. I now just want to let other people know that they can do the same.
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO PEOPLE STRUGGLING WITH SIMILAR ISSUES TO YOURSELF? WHAT MENTAL EXERCISE REALLY WORKED FOR YOU?
Be honest with yourself. A lot of people put their problems to the back of their mind in fear of organising them, but the mind is like a closet and needs to be cleared out.
There is no major solution. Explore all the avenues that work for you. With me it was counselling but for others, it might not be. What's important is acknowledging the problem and exploring the avenues to helping manage that.
Currently, I do affirmations. I remember the first time I did an affirmation and thinking it was utterly ridiculous but for me, it works.
There was a point I said these 2 things every day when I woke up. I now say :
Again this might not work for everyone but it does for me.
I can tell you honestly I’m happier than I was last year and last year I was happier than the year before that and so on and so forth. It's going up in scale. Am I happy now? Yes, I am, thankfully... but I also know that when I’m not, that's ok. Life is unpredictable and I've learnt to accept that and enjoy my happiness now instead of worrying about when I’m next not going to feel it.
WHAT ARE YOU WANTING TO DO IN THE FUTURE?
I’m a filmmaker, and through this, I’d love to challenge society's way of how people perceive depression.
Photo Credit: Maranatha Pizarras
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