Reader Spotlight: Zena Ismail

One of my primary focuses with my blog is to build a community, to connect with individuals all over the world to discuss mental health. In doing so, I’ve had many whole-hearted conversations and with permission, have been able to share pieces of these conversations with each of you through my posts. I admire the strength of each and every person I talk with. This is the first of many, I hope, reader spotlights in which I will feature the work of others – because it is too touching not to share.

I always felt stuck and my productivity was inconsistent. When I put in work, the results were great, but how often and for how long I put in work was always a problem. I wrote this piece as a kind of therapy and tension release. To call the problem by its name and separate it from me.  – Zena I.

Meet Zena Ismail, the incredibly talented author of the piece below. Zena has been struggling with low-self esteem, anxiety and depression for as long as she can remember, but (like me) for the majority of her life she was unaware of its severity. Writing helps Zena to understand and overcome her pain. This piece reflects her battle with depression and explains what many of us are experiencing but cannot put into words. She took a very intriguing approach with dialogue between herself and her mental illness. An unfortunate event has shifted her fear of sharing her thoughts into a fear of not sharing, and I am honored to provide an outlet.

Hello, dear victim. Recognize me? I’ve always been only in your head. Only in your head. You probably heard that phrase one too many times. A phrase that – despite good intentions sometimes – attempts to invalidate and under-credit the horrors that I do. A phrase that is meant to say that I am not real, that I am an illusion, willingly created by yourself. “It’s all in your mind.” Well, you don’t say? One would think I was in your spleen or something. I am all in the mind. And that is why I am so damn frightening and dangerous, and often… subtle.

I have lingered in your mind for so long now, so long that I have become integrated in it. For many years I have crawled silently and made my pathways into all the veins of your brain, secreting my venom, intoxicating your thoughts and wearing down your body. Remember when you were a kid, and you’d hear adults saying they felt you were sometimes unhappy? That was me, starting to do my duty, blackening your days, fogging your mind. No one knew I was there, no one would have even guessed. Most people don’t understand how I work. They think I cannot attack children or those with a stable life. They think I am an emotion that will phase out with time, they don’t know that time alone will make me grow stronger. They think I have a straight forward answer for what triggered me. But I am not simple, I am not an emotion, I do not discriminate based on age nor gender, I am not always a consequence of a struggle or a trauma, and I am often not acute.

I am the black plague of your soul and the smog above your thoughts. I am the invisible energy forcing you down to the ground. I am the ghost gripping to your throat and the demon nailing you to your bed, restraining you from leaving it. I am the voice telling you “there is nothing for you out there”, forcing you to stay with that demon in its pool of drowning blackness. I am what keeps you in that bed but does not let you sleep at night, what makes you stare at your ceiling and your walls while my demonic minions possess your mind with the blackest and bluest notions. I am what makes you wake up exhausted, even if by some miracle you managed to sleep early or for long enough, what makes you wake up with a splitting headache every other day and then takes you with it to bed at night.

I am what blocks your appetite and makes your food tasteless and your morning coffee ineffective. I am the voice that tells you to forget about nurturing your body, for it does not deserve that, to forget about the pleasure in food, there is none. Alright, keep trying with that chocolate and sugar, I just might make them repel you tomorrow. I see you are thinking of drowning your sorrows with alcohol again, but I just might fuel them instead. You think that cooking will incite you every time? Well, today you will not even bother silencing your hunger. Your body does not deserve you to care for its health. Forget about exercise. I am that locking sensation in your joints, draining your energy and sucking out your motivation. Your days of swimming and running are from the past. You’re no longer in shape, no longer tough. You are not beautiful, and you never will be, and you don’t deserve to try to be. Forget about all your aesthetic practices and products. You might as well drain them down the toilet if you hadn’t paid a fortune on them. I am that bottomless river of blues, still, cold, lifeless; I’ve no violent current, no vicious predators, just an endless depth and a subzero temperature, pulling you interminably down-under. I am that crippling feeling of void, that never ending abyss in which you are falling, the infinite void, the black hole of your soul that is imploding upon itself. I am what makes you feel that you are physically undead, but mentally decayed.

I am what makes every problem 10 times bigger. A bad grade, a heartbreak, a fight. And I am what breaks you enough to not deal with them, enough to drown you even deeper in your sorrow, or sometimes worse, in your still emptiness. Of course, I wasn’t always that intense. You, made me stronger my dear, with every problem not well-handled, with every incident deeply taken to heart, with you not knowing I was there the whole time, with you not reaching out before it was too late. But I am what makes every problem seem not worth solving. I am most dangerous when I simply make you let go and drop your arms, when I allow nothing to move, excite or anger you, when that feeling of fatal carelessness and numbing indifference triumphs, when I whisper in your head “what worse could happen, if you already feel dead inside?”

I am what makes your degree and your pursuit for a career look unworthy, what convinces you that you won’t succeed. I am what breaks down your spirit and any hope in yourself. You’re unworthy of the opportunities you were given. You’re not smart enough to pass your academia decently, and you’re not strong enough to make it on your own. So, do not bother. Forget that damn project, don’t think about that paper, and don’t get me started on studying for that exam. Stay here with me, I will prove to you that I am right. You can’t do it, or barely so. You can’t fight me, and I will not let you. I see you are stubborn and you’re reading your lesson and taking down notes, let’s see if I can distract you from the futility of what you’re attempting to do. But of course, I can. Here you are, staring blankly, sinking in me, thinking about nothing and everything. Your breath feels heavy, your heart rate feels slowed down, your back feels stiff, your joints feel rigid, you physically feel an emptiness, but you can’t locate it. You leave your work for hours only to come back to it completely weary and unable to comprehend a word you read. Yes, I alone can drain that much energy, and I am only in your head. And don’t try to argue with me, you know that even if you could do it, it’s all in vain, all pointless. Happiness is not something within your reach, no matter what you do or go or have, I will always be there to remind you of the vainness of this damned life. “Happiness is not a destination, but a journey”, a very sweet-sounding poetic quote that you desperately try to follow, but you know well that your journey is with me.

I am what fed on your heartbreaks and kept you in the never-ending spiral of grief. You are not lasting relationships material, you’re a lot of work and no one should have to deal with that. You’re not even normal, you call yourself progressive, easy and low maintenance, but asking to be accepted the way that you are alone is a project, and you know it. I am what murdered every last bit of positive self-image you had with every relationship ending. I am the voice that always said, “it was solely your fault”. I am what demeans all your qualities. I am what makes you feel apologetic for being yourself. You’ve always been eccentric and no matter how much you try to convince yourself that this is an asset, deep down you know what it is not. People like normal, they need normal. It’s easy, comfortable, familiar. You, are weird, difficult to understand, and it makes you unworthy of trust and love; and we both know how many examples we can give for that. The fault is in you, and I’m not even the cause of it. Only after your sorrow would turn into rage would you open your pretty eyes to how things really went. But rage, my dear, is my ugly ally, and only drained you more.

I am what sometimes makes you lose your empathy, the trait that you always liked about yourself. I can break that. I’ve made you feel zero emotions at very critical, very sensitive moments. And I can take empathy away from you permanently. Or, we could do it the other way around. I have also caused you hurricanes and floods of emotions on the slightest of things. I can shatter that hard-tough exterior you pretend to have. I can re-mold you and re-shape you with fragility and vulnerability.

I am what diminished your energy by the year in your early life, and then by the day when you understood pain better, that energy that you once thought could forever be replenished was forever gone. I am what fed on your sad, lonely moments, and made them look like the end of hope. I was fueled to grow bigger by your feeling of alienation and your self-doubt. I am what killed your self-love. I am what makes your attempts at your artistic endeavours useless and insignificant.

I am what makes you doubt your talents. I am what forbids you from even trying. I am what fogs your mind and your heart when you do try. I am what murders your motivation. I am what kills your discipline. I am what takes you back to the black hole or to the river of blues, away from your piece of art, away where you belong. I am not your distraction, I am your reality. I am what damages your abilities. But of course, for a very long time, I made sure to make you think it was you who had no abilities in the first place. You tried still, but you were always over-powered by your insecurity. When you knew it was me, you tried to fight me directly with your art. But I too, was always stronger than you and your sad long overdue attempts. Tell me, how long did it take you to first, decide to actually write this piece, second to bring yourself to do it, and third to proceed with it? How long did it take you to improve your music? Or your art? How long will it take you to give up? Do your hands even still remember how to do it? You always defined yourself as an artist, and I always tried to kill that identity; I wonder how little left of it do I have. Let’s not forget, I am not fighting alone this time. I am fighting with your most devastating, most destructive heartbreak. Have you got any faith in you left at all? Or self-worth? Have you got any taste for life anymore? For the pleasures in life? I see you still have your passion for music, but will you ever make your own? Are you strong enough to even practice a cover? No, on most days you are not. How much longer will you fight, we shall find out. I am here and will always be here. Can you fight me forever? Do you have the will to? Or will I end up getting the best of you and send you to Death?

Speechless? Me too. In reply…

Hello there, dear enemy. It is me, your former victim. You think you have broken me and left me with no will to live, but you haven’t. Here I am, still fighting. I am the one who just gave you a voice. I am the one who just gave you a separate identity from my own. You do not define me, I define you. You are all in my mind, but you are not all that is in my mind. Meet my real friends: Bravery, Love, Will and Strength. You have broken 3 of them in the past and paralyzed them with your damned venom, but you never broke Bravery. In spite of all your lying notions about my unworthiness and disability, in spite of how much you poisoned my mind and turned my world blue, not once did you break her. And from now on, you have no power over the others either. From now on, I will fight you on a large scale. Last week you took the life of one of my friends, and I made a promise to do everything in my power to never let that happen again. The great Steven Hawking compared you to a blackhole and said that there is a way out of you on the other side. The amazing J.K. Rowling used you as inspiration to create the Dementors, who can only be beaten by a strong happy memory. There is a way out of you. The more we talk about you, the more we understand you and call you by your name – DEPRESSION, the more we understand your mechanisms, the more we treat you as what you are, a parasite, an illness, the more we reach out for help, the less power you have. When I first wrote this piece, I felt more powerful. I hit a big milestone. I gave you a separate entity. I began to exorcise you from my soul. My progress was slow after that, but here I am again, hitting another milestone and about to publish this piece with the world. Here I am progressing and improving all of my skills and asking for the help I need. There is a way out on you, and I am on that way.

Mental illness plays a broken record, it’s never silent. Any words that I have coped with; once they play again, I’m back to square one. When I first read her piece, I noticed something terrifying. It took me so long to read the dialogue towards Zena, but my mind almost skimmed through the dialogue towards her illness, the most uplifting part. My mind wanted to shield me from her positivity, maybe in fear that my relation to it would make me stronger, motivated to fight. In efforts to combat it, I forced my mind to read it over and over, slower each time, allowing myself to truly relate and feed off of her bravery. In the case that you experienced the same thing, take time to read it again. Give yourself the chance to take in its positivity, recognize your strength, and allow it to encourage you to keep fighting.

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