Guest Post by a WAVAW Volunteer
Like many women, I have suffered from depression since my preteens. Maybe even earlier… (Were those tantrums as a child really just nonsense, or was I reacting negatively to feeling belittled by the adults around me? Being humiliated? Ridiculed?). I watched as the members of my nuclear family developed multiple sclerosis, dementia, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder. We were like a colourful bouquet of mental and neurological complications, and of course, the medical labels assigned to explain everyone’s symptoms were limited and in many instances, totally inaccurate. Despite all this, or maybe because of it, my illness went undetected and unaddressed. I left home soon after turning 18 and no one seemed to notice.
My early 20s would have been easier if I had family support. Between work, school, unreliable roommates, break-ins, thefts, assaults, substance abuse issues and just exhaustion, I laughed at the idea of getting physical exercise to help my depression. Physical activity was, at that time, totally unattainable and not at all a priority. But no matter what, anyone I spoke to about depression came to one conclusion – I needed exercise. So simple.
A lot of the abuse I faced was racial and gendered – I was a petite woman of colour, and a little less luck would have me continuing to believe that my circumstances were what I deserved. My luck came in the form of my two close friends. They listened and empathized with me, but also admitted they could not fully understand what I was going through. This was huge for me. I would say that the most important thing they did to support me was to give me space. They gave me space to feel, space to speak openly, and when I was ready, a safe space to heal.
I was hyper-aware of why and how I was effed up, but I needed an extra jolt! Since last year, I have been on a low dose of SSRIs (known commonly by their more oppressive name: antidepressants) – in fact, many experts believe that the dose I take has a placebo effect. That’s fine with me. Within the first two months, the forever-looming cloud had lifted from over my head (You know, the one that follows you around everywhere. You run in the other direction, and just when you think you’ve lost it, you feel the droplets coming down again…). By the third month, I felt like ME for the first time. I started doing all the things I used to wish I could do, I said all the things that I used to wish I could say. I realized that it was okay if not everyone liked me. Instead, I started voicing opinions that came off as bitchy, uptight, or feminist (GASP!). I had some hard days, but I was able to handle them much better. Most importantly, I was able to identify my triggers and was comfortable seeking support.
There was a huge shift in my life when I started volunteering with WAVAW. This was a place where I would finally be understood, and my experience as a woman of colour valued. Why was I so angry? Why were my feelings always being undermined? Where did my overwhelming feelings of powerlessness come from?
THAT DAMNED PATRIARCHY.
I was raised by a mother who valued beauty over brains (she was married off at 16 because she was “beautiful” and didn’t need to have education to have security). As this was her only reality, she raised me with the same intentions and was absolutely shattered when I presented as a boy or showed more interest in books than in people. Once I left the Middle East at 18, I became a woman of colour for the first time, and instead of finding the freedom I had craved for years, I was boxed in by all of the stories of how people thought I should be (obedient, sweet, innocent, praying for a suitor). The women at Women Against Violence Against Women were the first in my life to truly recognize the complexity and ubiquity of patriarchal oppression in everything from capitalism to our educational system. I deeply appreciated their perspective that each woman is the expert of her own experience.Volunteer training at WAVAW is absolutely no joke. They have the strongest training program I have ever been a part of. In many ways, WAVAW’s training program provided me with what I was unable to find in meetings with psychiatrists/therapy. WAVAW’s anti-oppression training covers sexism, racism, classism, psychiatric oppression, everything in between, and the fact that all of these topics intersect to spin a never-ending web, making it impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins. I spent so many years of my life being told not to “complain” about sexism, racism, etc; it wasn’t until I actually went through 100+ hours of training that it finally occurred to me that social justice has to be demanded. WAVAW’s intention is to support volunteers to unapologetically be the tough, resilient women that we are. Through this, we are able to support others while remaining cognizant of each woman’s unique experience, recognizing that oppression comes in as many forms as there are women.
So, I do still have depression, but having a support system makes it so much more manageable. Being able to understand the sources of my depression helps me work with it in a constructive way; I feel I can channel my strongest feelings into work that other women can access through their own journeys of struggle and growth.