September 2016, Junior Year of Highschool
It’s a chilly afternoon as I walk into my bedroom. I toss my backpack over my shoulder and crash into my bed. My eyes want to stay open and closed at the same time. They trace the cracks in my bedroom wall over and over again. Looking for meaning. Looking for something. A typical day in my junior year of high school. I get ready to take a shower. Those twenty minutes of peace under the hot water are my only solace in the day. I take my clothes off and glance at my reflection in the bathroom mirror; numb, foreign eyes stare back. I look lower and catch a glimpse of something different. And for the first time, I see it. My body. Sunken in cheeks, tight collarbones, ribs protruding out stretching my skin, stretched strips of white and red color dash across my thighs and lower back.
January 2017, Junior Year of Highschool
I’m sitting in a dimly lit office; black, worn-out couches; orange and brown-hued walls. Dated Vanity Fair magazines and pamphlets reading: ‘How to get over addiction’. My inner monologue tortures me with the question, ‘What in god’s name am I doing here? ’.
After months of struggling with drama at school and home, I had finally convinced my parents to let me go to therapy. They, being typical South Asians, thought that mental health in general was nonsense. A feat in itself as their preconceived notion of mental health can be equated to that of believing in unicorns. Up until then my requests were only met with "man up" or they blamed my current state of emotional distress on "not being connected enough with God".
But now, I sit in the office of my new therapist. Fear and the embedded mistrust of seeking help keep me sitting tight in my chair and my eyes locked to the ground.
I look up. My therapist has a smile on his face that almost seems to say, ‘let's get to work.’
“Now tell me,” he says,” what brings you here today.”
“I don’t know,” I say. “I’m not happy.”
“Let's explore that then; why don’t we start from the beginning.”
I bite my tongue and begin to tell my story.
It would be wrong for me to say I didn’t have a privileged childhood. Food was always on the table. If I ever wanted something, we could almost always afford it. But to a degree, it was never emotionally the best environment.
Coming from a strict Pakistani household, perfection was always demanded, all the way from your religious life to your academics. Could I complain? No, not at all. Men were expected not to show or express their emotions. Being sensitive or too caring inherently seemed negative. And in the background was the constant noise of fighting between my parents and relatives. Despite the high expectations and chaos, I simply learned to live with it over the years. It was normal to me. Why should I question it?
The years of struggling at home with high expectations always made me an anxious kid. Everything always had to be perfect for my parents to be happy with me, and it seemed like I had to be perfect to be pleased with myself. My pain and sadness was always masked with a smile and a laugh. I refused to be a burden regardless of the sadness that constantly pulled me down.
That’s not to say I was never happy. I did have good moments and happy memories with friends and family. I just find it harder to remember them when the darker times seem to cloud my life.
High school just made it feel worse. Waking up every day, the first thing I would notice was the feeling of emptiness weighing me down and making it harder to get out of bed. I would go to school skipping breakfast, not feeling the energy or motivation to eat. At school, the numbness would drag on. During lunch hours, I often skipped eating and went straight to the library to drown myself in a book. When I would go home, and my parents would ask what I ate, I would find myself lying without thinking about it. It didn’t seem like a big deal to me, so why did they have to know?
It wasn’t till after I started therapy that I realized that in the two months since my Junior year had started, I had lost almost thirty pounds. My habits had me subconsciously skipping meals. My rapid weight loss left semi-permanent stretch mark scars across my body. Avoiding eating was my way of dealing with my emotions. It wasn’t until years later that I understood that this would be considered an eating disorder.
July 2018, Freshman Year of College
I find myself running to the nearest bathroom, anything to get away from everyone else. Sweat dripping down my face, I run into the farthest stall and crouch into the corner.
Okay, Bilal, breathe, breathe, think, remember, what did you learn in therapy? List five things you can see around you. The metallic clasp of the door-lock, the reflection of the ceiling in the marble floor, the etched graffiti on the walls, the leaky pipe in the corner of the ceiling, the shoes of the person in the stall next to me. Now four things you can hear—
This was one of the few tricks I learned after almost two years of therapy to help my panic attacks. At certain times, they worked, allowing me to ground myself and organize my thoughts. And at other times, it did nothing but make me feel crazier than I already thought I was by talking to myself. I’m in a pre-college summer program, and although none of the projects I am working on have any written grades attached to them, I can’t seem to shake off the anxiety I feel through everything I do. My inner voice slowly goes from ‘counting three things you can touch’ back to a swarm of thoughts.
I want to make friends. I want to be successful. I want to be perfect. I need to be perfect. Am I doing good enough? Do they hate me? Why aren’t I good enough?
November 2019, Sophomore Year of College
I find myself studying for my upcoming finals with my friends in one of their apartments. We sat crammed around a table with a mixture of laptops, books, notes, and random food items scattered around us.
My friends seem deep in focus, but I stare blankly at my screen. This semester has been my worst so far. The panic attacks I used to experience once in a while, now occur every day. I was failing most of my classes.
It started off with doing poorly on a few assignments. The idea that I didn’t understand the course materials right away frustrated me. To even begin an assignment would take so much energy. It started to get harder to get out of bed and go to class. And slowly, coming late to class became not showing up at all. Turning in assignments late turned into being afraid to turn anything in, which of course, only led to my grades dropping further and my anxiety and depression spiraling even more.
My friends get up to grab something from the local 7/11. They notice something is wrong, but I tell them not to worry and to go without me.
I’m lying, of course. I don’t want them to worry about me. I don’t want to come off as a burden. As soon as they leave the door, the sadness I was internalizing for months bubbles up once again inside me. I feel empty and scared.
Why couldn’t I just be better? Why couldn’t I just be a better student? Why couldn’t I just manage my emotions? Why did I have to be such a burden? I hate myself.
My thoughts rage on and on until I get a sudden urge. I just want the pain and the madness in my mind to stop. I walk over to the kitchen drawer and pick out the sharpest knife.
I lean the blade against the skin on my wrist. I drag it slightly across up and down, not enough to pierce the flesh but enough to leave light white and red scratches. I so badly want to push further. I just want the pain to stop.
I hear the door opening from my friends returning. I shove the knife back in the drawer and pull down my sleeves. I turn around and greet them with a smile. Everything is okay, they don’t notice anything, and they don’t need to know anything.
December 2019, Sophomore Year of College
I’m alone in my dorm room a month after my finals. I don’t want to go home. I can’t face my parents after failing two classes. I can barely even look at myself in the mirror.
How could I be such an embarrassment? Why couldn’t I just be smart? And why can’t I get these voices in my head to stop?
I turn to my desk. Beside the Swiss Army knife I started keeping close to me whenever I felt the urge to subdue the mental pain was the newly prescribed dose of Lexapro.
This was my first time taking an antidepressant. I somehow managed to get myself to go to a psychiatrist and talk about how I was feeling. After they recommended that I start taking medications, I had mixed feelings.
I was glad that, for once, there seemed to be a solution to everything that was going on. ‘Take a pill and forget about all your worries, ’ is what I told myself. At the same time, I was scared that I would start to change as a person by taking medications. I was afraid that I would turn into someone I didn’t know. Along with its benefits, the media always makes antidepressants seem like they make people into mindless drones.
I grasp the bottle in my hands. My thoughts, my brain, my emotions are torn in two. I have nothing to lose. I take my first pill.
July 2020, Junior Year of College
In my parents’ house in Iowa, I sit in the sunroom reading a fantasy book, trying to escape reality. It's been about eight months since starting medications and about a half year since quarantine from Covid-19 began.
My anxiety had decreased significantly, and my depressive thoughts come through less and less. At first, it felt amazing, like I had a new start. But eventually, I realized that the medications didn’t take away all the negative feelings in my mind. A triggering moment would still be a trigger. I still felt pain, anger, fear, frustration. All things I wanted to avoid. In other words, I still needed to deal with my issues. Although things had improved mentally, and my academics were going better over the last few months, my mind still felt somewhat chaotic. Not being able to see my friends and being stuck in my household with my parents kept me on the edge.
I can feel my father’s presence come up behind me. Instinctually, I almost always get anxious when he is around.
“Why is it that every time I see you, you’re not working? Do you even care about your academics,” he says.
I immediately get defensive, “What does it matter to you?”
“If you don’t take your academics seriously, then I’m not letting you go back to college in the Fall.”
Something in that moment snapped in me. Angry that he would make a statement like that. Frustrated that he didn’t understand what I was going through mentally. The next words came out of my mouth without much thought.
“Then you won’t see me in the morning.”
He didn’t think much of it and walked away.
At this moment, I came to the conclusion that he didn’t care about me. No one cared about me. I had no future because I had screwed up my academics already. I was broken, and no one wanted me.
I marched to my room and locked the door. My older sister realizes something was wrong at this time, and she starts to bang on my door. I choose to ignore it.
I grab my bottle of pills, and I scoop them all into my hands. I’m prepared to leave. Leave this house. Leave this planet. Leave this existence. I can’t take it anymore.
My dad, hearing the ruckus, comes to my door as well. He realizes what I am doing just by hearing the sound of the pills leaving the bottle. He proceeds to push down the door. Before I can raise my cupped hand to my mouth, my sister and my dad are already in the room taking the pills away from me.
We all stand in silence. They were shocked that I would try to do something like that. I was overcome with the emotions of wanting to leave and disappear.
For the next few days, I sit bundled in my bed, not wanting to do or say anything. Everyone in my family is trying to act normal, denying to themselves that what happened even occurred. I find myself praying that I get a terminal illness and die in my sleep. Or that I would cross the street, and a car would come and crash into me. I feel no purpose anymore.
I had turned off my phone for a few days, not wanting to deal with the outside world for a while, but I feel the urge of loneliness and think perhaps talking to a friend would console me for once.
But little did I know that everything would change after this moment. I find my phone swarmed with messages—all reading the same.
‘[Redacted] committed suicide.’
I lay in my bed, shocked. He was my friend and my former student when I was a teaching assistant the previous summer.
Flashes of his face and memories swarmed in my mind. I recalled how every time I would be leaving my dorm, I would always find him right next to the front desk, and he would always run up to hug me. I remembered our late-night study sessions where we geeked out over our shared love for Melanie Martinez and procrastinated on our assignments. I remember how every time I dressed up for an occasion, he would make an effort to say, “Bilal, you’re looking like a tall glass of chocolate milk.”
For a few weeks afterward, I, along with my friends and the wider community, grieved over his loss. I thought to myself, how could he have done it. What could I have done so it wouldn’t have happened? He was such a bright person with such an amazing future ahead of him.
And that’s when it finally started to hit me. The feelings I was experiencing over his passing would be the same as others would feel for me if I had succeeded in doing the same a few days before him.
To think that no one cared about me or loved me seemed so irrational. The love and grief those around me showed for him reminded me of my value. ‘There are people who love me.’ For the first time in months, I felt like I had just woken up.
A while ago, I learned about a Japanese phrase called ‘Ikigai’, which roughly translates to ‘a reason for being’. It defines the idea of having a purpose and direction within life.
I look back at my life now, and I see how much I’ve gone through—the pain, suffering, and sadness. Perhaps a few months ago, I would have let that define me, but not anymore.
I’ve realized, through all my hardships, what it means to push onwards. Your previous actions don’t have to define your future. I’m learning to come to terms with my past. My family, friends, and those around me only did what they thought was best. It’s finally clear in my head that no matter how much I doubt it myself, there’s always going to be someone, somewhere, who loves and cares for me and will miss me if I ever disappeared.
Today, I still get depressed, and I still struggle with my anxiety. I still go to therapy and take antidepressants. I was wrong to think that those things would take away all my problems. I still need to wake up every day, and I need to deal with the struggles that life throws at me.
One of the first things my therapist ever told me was, “Bilal, you act like you want someone to come into your life and physically fix your problems.” At the time, his words fell on deaf ears, but now, finally, I understand. I can’t expect other people to come and fix me and make my life better. The only person responsible for my happiness is me. I choose to find the good in my day, and I choose to believe in a future where things are okay.
I’ve lived my life looking through a dark lens, but I’m learning now to see the beauty in the everyday. I love the late night trips to get bubble tea with my friends after a long week of midterms. I love reminiscing with my mom over my cringy childhood memories. I love the times I lose my breath from laughing over inside jokes with my siblings. I love the feeling of being commended by professors for working hard in my class even though I’m struggling. Ikigai refers to more than just staying alive, but finding beauty and reason within the small everyday things.
I’m not trying to tell my story to get pity or for people to feel sorry for me. I don’t need to be saved by anyone, and I don’t need to be rescued. I tell my story because I know there are others out there who are struggling the same way I was, who are trying to find their Ikigai.
If you’re reading this and going through a difficult time, just remember that you are never alone, and your current situation is not your final destination. You can get through anything life throws at you. Your strongest supporter is yourself. All you need to do is believe it.