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Farah Abdi's blog: Dealing with depression

Farah Abdi's blog: Dealing with depression

Acknowledging our insecurities doesn’t take away our role as young leaders

Sometimes change makers feel expected to be all inspiration, which can force them to lock up whatever insecurities they are dealing with. In his fifth blog for Leading Change, Farah explains how he came to realise that being weak and admitting his own shortcomings does not make him any less of a leader.

I am sitting here feeling worn and scratched – a vinyl record that has seen better days. I’ve grown accustomed to this feeling. Oftentimes, it is accompanied by days of lying in front of the television, blanket over my head, as the latest episode of Keeping up with the Kardashians echoes around my living room. Sometimes the most innocuous, chirpy song on the radio has the capacity to make me cry. In those moments of quiet desperation I often ask myself, “Where did this sadness come from? When did this pervasive emotionality seep into my system and, more importantly, how do I stem it?”

It took me a while to realise that I was battling depression. Looking back, I can honestly say that I was dragging my feet to get diagnosed because I was living in denial.

As an activist who is supposed to inspire other minorities going through a lot, I thought I was expected to sweep all my insecurities under the carpet. I could only do this for so long until the clutter caught up with me.

The first thing I had to do, apart from being medically diagnosed, was to destigmatise depression in my own head. I had to learn that unlike the portrayal we see in the movies, there's nothing tragically beautiful about depression. It's not sad songs and poetry, shy glances or drowning in the bath. It's not ghostly white skin tainted by charcoal circles under sad eyes and large purple bruises stretching viciously up my arms. It isn't lonely walks, vacant coffee shops or smoking dusty cigarettes.

Depression in my case is unwashed clothes and flaking skin. It's over eating and the inability to even get out of bed. It's giving up on myself and not taking pride in my appearance anymore. It's empty inboxes, bursts of anger and late night tears. It's a feeling of disgust within myself that makes me want to tear off my own skin just so I can feel clean. It's uncertainty and confusion. It's gaining weight, long showers and greasy hair. It's constantly wishing I could be somewhere or someone else. It's losing the will to even live.

Being aware of all of this and realising that it's ok to be vulnerable was my first step towards recovery. Salvation also came in the form of literature. Before I ever dreamt of becoming a writer I was a reader. Growing up in Kenya, I was obsessed with the brilliantly-etched adventures of Asterix, Tintin, and Calvin and Hobbes, alongside the delights offered up by CS Lewis and Roald Dahl.

I was so obsessed with reading to a point where my parents imposed a strict rule – I could only read fiction and comic books after I had completed all my homework. My fascination with reading comic led me to finer literature as I grew older.

I began to read Arundhati Roy, Zadie Smith, Salman Rushdie (even though I had to hide his books from my deeply religious Muslim parents as though they were pornography). I read Manil Suri, Nuruddin Farah, Alice Munro, Alison Bechdel, ZZ Packer, Edwidge Danticat, Junot Diaz.

Farah Abdi

I marvelled at the way these writers used language, the way they bent syntax to create the most exquisite prose. With the aid of these writers I re-learnt how to speak, how to hold a conversation, how to embrace my insecurities instead of pretending them away. Reading as widely as possible, my brain started formulating patterns, and before I knew it I was speaking in sentences of newfound clarity.

Reading extensively endowed me with a sense of daring and confidence. The books I had read opened me up to other ways of being. But I hungered for characters and stories that echoed my own experiences. When I couldn’t find any, I began writing my own. Toni Morrison said it best. "If there's a book that you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it."

It is in writing my book that I dealt with my depression and own the not so perfect side of me. Today I am not ashamed of my depression and it doesn't make me any less of a leader.

These items have been washed up onto Delimara Bay, Malta. They are thought to belong to migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea.

"I did not want anything to do with this bloody group that was responsible for the death of my dad and many other innocent civilians. I had to flee, because refusing their request to join them would lead to me being executed."

Abbas, 19-year-old Somali refugee in Malta

A man exercises at Hal-far Open Refugee Centre, Malta

"Before giving up on your dreams, pinch your skin, tug at your hair. Remind yourself that you are alive."

Farah Abdi

Farah is speaking with the Prime Minister of Malta, Joseph Muscat

"The problem with throwing money at the problem is that the money ends up in the wrong hands and does not achieve what it was intended to achieve."

Farah Abdi

Farah speaking at the US mission in Geneva

"In order for me to embrace my transgender identity, I had to learn that nothing in life is fixed, especially family and community."

Farah Abdi