I’ve always associated terms like ‘clinical depression’ or ‘Post Traumatic Stress Disorder’ with vague images of soldiers in battle fatigues or patients in a psychiatric ward; they were not concepts that I could immediately link to my surroundings, vague abstractions that always existed elsewhere. After all, what trauma could we have experienced in our sleepy, forgotten country, where nothing really moved forward and nothing of importance was discussed.
When the war broke out, and the sound of guns being fired and sight of blood pooling in the street was still new, we were not aware of what was happening to us internally. Many people made efforts to conceal their inner tumult. But sometimes not well enough. A friend of mine burst into tears suddenly upon arriving to class on day; she had witnessed the second car bombing in a week in her neighbourhood. Others desperately sought help, but there was none. Mental illness is not recognized for what it is in Libya, and we have neither the infrastructure or expertise to handle it.
In the second year of war, I began have reoccurring dreams, mainly of destroyed houses in my neighbourhood. Thinking about certain issues – my education, a family member’s health problems, a friend’s death – brought on feelings of discomfort. I began to recognize that the episodes of difficult breathing and chest tightening were called panic attacks. The irony is that knowing you are prone to panic attacks makes you panic even more, prolonging them. Panic attacks were followed by a nervous stomach and the inability to swallow, which could last for days. I couldn’t eat, nor did I want to, opting instead to stay in bed and avoid the world.
I became easily irritated, angrier and more aggressive, a veritable bomb of stress. I fought often with people, I lost the ability to forgive because I didn’t understand where the rage was coming from. Relationships felt strained, difficult to maintain. Nausea was my constant companion. It felt intolerable to be in my own skin, in a body I had little control over.
It took some opening up to others to realize that this wasn’t a battle I was fighting alone. Friends talked about pills they had to take to sleep, haunting thoughts of suicide, over-drinking to forget, a feeling of indifference to everything. It made me sad to realize how an entire generation is being plagued by these problems. But there is comfort and strength gained from sharing these similar experiences with others.
But we can’t even begin to think of healing while the violence and the madness still rage in Libya. We live in a constant state of hypervigilence, awaiting the next bomb or bullet or fight, which will inevitably happen in our fragile cities. We can’t protect ourselves. But we can prepare. I’ve been trying to practice self-care, which is a series of different habits to help manage the anxiety. It’s been helping me stay in control, and not to feel entirely helpless. The steps I take include:
- Admit Your Illness – There’s some advice I read online which goes something like this: “Tell yourself that it’s not you, it’s the disease.” One of the worst things about anxiety is the effect it has on your self-confidence. It’s important to recognize that you’re not inherently flawed as a person, that you’re battling something that was forced on you. Separating who you are from what you’re experiencing is an important step to keeping it under control.
- Let Go of Grudges – One thing I’ve been trying to do lately is contacting everyone I’ve had personal problems with and trying to resolve things. I am obsessive with my anger, but it only exacerbates my anxiety. Letting go of past conflicts has given me peace of mind and allowed me to focus on managing my emotions better.
- Know When to Stop Working – Overwork = Stress = Burnout, which happened quite a lot to me in the past year. The stress builds up to the point where one triggering event can send me over the edge into panic attacks. As much as you want to achieve in your job, or maybe you bury yourself in your work to avoid being alone with your thoughts, there comes a point where you have to stop and address your needs first.
- Exercise – Anyone who knows me knows that I’m not an athletic person. I prefer mental to physical exertion. But during one panic attack, I became incredibly restless and had to leave the house. I eventually began running, because I felt this overwhelming ability to just move. While the run was short (again, not an exercise person) I was able to breath better and control the shaking. I now try to fit in some time for a run during my week, because aside from the endorphin, it helps my overall peace of mind.
- Talk To Others – Opening up about mental illness is probably one of the most difficult things in a country like Libya, but one of the most liberating things for me was being to say out loud that I was suffering. Talking to friends, to family, even to a stranger, is ultimately better than keeping things locked inside. Don’t be afraid to show emotion and be vulnerable.
These are some of the steps I’m taking to improve my own life, they don’t necessarily have to be yours though. You could practice a hobby to feel better, scream in a pillow, spend a day at the beach. The only important thing to remember is to recognize the anxiety for what is it, and not to give it permission to dominate your life.