The art of anxiety: a battle of past, future, and present
By Cesilia Faustina
Photography by Cesilia Faustina
“Anxiety started to enter my life on a daily basis and I started overthinking everything. I became very negative and I expected the worst because that was, in a way a coping mechanism.”
One aspiring psychiatrist believes everybody should go to therapy on a regular basis.
Daughter, sister, and medical student Mariella Suleiman saw a greater path for mental health — seeing it as a part of our everyday.
“I have a dream that everybody should go to therapy,” she said.
“I want to prevent [mental distress] from happening to anyone and prevent it from actually becoming a problem.
“I dream of a world where psychological counselling is a must for everyone.”
The Jordanian has had to confront a world of anxiety since her late teens. After starting medical school, Mariella experienced her breakdown which led to personal discoveries.
“It started when I was in the second year of medical school, so five years ago,” she said.
“It all started with physical symptoms first and I wasn’t able to know why that happened.
“So, first of all, I had a lot of presentations, I lost a lot of weight, I had a hyperactive bladder for maybe three years and I did a lot of tests and all the doctors said there was nothing.
“I did not think about it a lot or tried not to, but then it became worst and I stopped being able to sleep so for example if I go to sleep at 12am I woke up at 4am and stay up for two to three hours before I can sleep again, and that was really terrible.
“If you have things to do and you can only sleep four hours, your lifestyle just goes down.”
Mariella suffers from general anxiety disorder which tends to be characterised by an overly excessive need to panic over everyday activities and expecting the worst.
She said she was constantly worried and had to face many challenges on a daily basis.
“Anxiety started to enter my life on a daily basis and I started overthinking everything,” she said.
“I became very negative and I expected the worst because that was, in a way a coping mechanism.
“Because I had anxiety and I was very afraid of everything, I thought if I prepared for the worst, it won’t be that bad because I prepared for it, but that wasn’t the healthy way of coping with it.
“Because I expected the worst before it happened, I already lived it before it happened. For me, that was really bad, I could not get myself out of it.”
After facing anxiety, Mariella fell into a depression which put her in a worse state of mental health.
“[The anxiety] last for around three years, then I started to fall into depression — which I found, later on, was because having anxiety for a long time drains your body,” she said.
“It was like I stopped and fell into a hole, and I slept for around 15 hours a day — especially on weekends; I felt like I did not see any purpose in life anymore.
“I thought maybe it was because I was studying Medicine; I felt that maybe I should not be doing this and that I should just drop out — that was when I was in my fourth year.
“I said to myself that I cannot do this, maybe that is why I should just drop out.
“When I thought back though, I was really passionate about it and I really wanted to make a change, then I thought that maybe that was not the reason, but I couldn’t find a good enough reason to justify it.”
According to the Jordan Times, around 25 percent of people who go to psychiatrists in Jordan suffer from depression — where the percentage of depression for women range from 20 to 40 percent and for men it was half the percentage.
Having thought her medical school as the cause of her mental disorder, Mariella decided to take a gap year after having gone through severe ongoing symptoms from her disease.
“It is not easy [doing medical school] and there’s a lot of pressure,” she said.
“I’m sure it was that and people kept telling me it’s stress.
“When I used to see doctors and I would do checks for my bladder, everybody would say it was just stress and it was because of [medical school].”
“I continued to go to therapy along with taking the medication because the symptoms did not improve; I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t focus, I kept going back and forth to the bathroom, it was really bad.”
Mariella said she wanted to take time off her studies to figure out what was happening to her first, which led her to see a therapist.
“I had all the signs and symptoms of anxiety and depression — at the same time. As well as low concentration and self-esteem, loss of appetite, and a change in sleep pattern,” she said.
“I told myself that before I continue or stop, I needed to take the time to figure out what was the real reason for why this was happening.
“If I dropped out and realised that my major was not the reason and I was wrong, that would be terrible. Then I decided, I am going to take this time and use it to see a therapist.”
She said therapy was a life changing experience for her and made her face all the problems she was holding inside.
“I dedicated that summer just for [therapy],” she said.
“My therapist is awesome honestly, she is the one that changed everything. The therapy was extremely intense and horrible because all those past things I did not deal with came up to the surface.
“It is like when they say the past is going to haunt you and you will have to deal with it, it is true.
“So, I did the intense therapy for quite a while and everything got a lot better — at least I was able to deal with past issues — however, that summer passed, but I still have the symptoms.”
The medical student said she still experienced severe symptoms even after the therapy, and it was still not an easy process for her.
“The symptoms did not improve; I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t focus, I kept going back and forth to the bathroom, it was really bad,” she said.
“All the coping skills I learned in therapy, I was not really able to implement them in real life because of how severe my anxiety was, I couldn’t even change my mindset or break the cycle that made me fall in this trap but once I was better with medication, I was able to apply those skills.
“I realized that you need to feel okay and better in order to do that. I had years and years piled up and that made me forget how to feel normal — that was really difficult.”
According to a 2010 research by Health Grove, there are around 390,000 people a year who experience anxiety in Jordan. There are also a number of limited psychiatrists in Jordan — some of which are understaffed — where in 2008 there were a total of 60 psychiatrists within the country. Though there have been signs of improvements from the government and on a local level, resources are still limited.
Mariella did not want to depend on her medication as much and would like to focus more on natural exercises to calm her down.
“If I start to feel the symptoms again, I stop what I do, I take my dog for a walk, I meditate, I dance it off, and just breathing exercises and talk it through, break the cycle,” she added.
“So that is my goal and I hope we can reach a world that is much more accepting until now. I wanted to make something good out of something bad and I thought this was the way to do it.”
The Jordanian said she was lucky to have a good support system to help her through the hardships.
“My friends were amazing, I wouldn’t have been able to do it without them,” she said.
“My family as well, they weren’t very happy I had to do that and I knew my parents were very worried, but they also saw I started changing because they saw during the weekends I couldn’t get out of bed.
“They knew something was up so they thought it was a good idea I checked it out, but I made sure not to tell a lot of people. I made sure to only tell people I would get support from.
Even though she had support from many parties, she also had people that made it harder to confess about her illness.
“I was told I shouldn’t tell anyone, that I should hide your medication and I was treated differently,” she said.
“I was told I should lie about it. It hit me hard, so that was always difficult because I felt like I had to hide it.
“I decided that ‘no, I’m not going to do that,’ even though some people might think it’s the right thing to do.
“This is why I went out and talked about it. I took medication, I went to therapy — I still go sometimes — and it is the best thing I could have done.”
Aside from the secrecy culture Mariella had to face, she also saw greater challenges along the way.
“The biggest challenge in the beginning when I decided to go to therapy was I thought I wasn’t strong enough to face it — which I realised now was very wrong of me to think that way,” she said.
“People used to tell me that people have it worse than you and I realised it was wrong for me to think that because it shows strength to admit that I need help, regardless of what people think.”
“However, the biggest challenge was going through it all,” she added.
“Therapy is not easy, especially when you realise how many years you have of things that are not resolved.
“One of the biggest challenges of all was convincing my family to come with me because it was very difficult to convince them it was needed in a way. What was affecting me was affecting them as well and having their support is key to resolving things completely.
“I think it’s the best thing that could have happened.
Mariella also added one of the main threats she feared was the thought of falling into her dark place again.
“The balance; the fear that it’s gonna happen again but at the same time you need to prepare yourself in case it does happen again, so that’s an ongoing challenge.”
She said she thought it was harder for people to talk about mental health due to the lack of information and knowledge about it.
“I think people are afraid of the unknown and mental health is a big area of the unknown,” she said.
“For example, a lot of people relate to stuff they see in the movies. Mental health patients are also people and it can happen to any of us at any time.
“Because people are afraid of something they don’t understand, they tend to stay away from these people.”
She said it was best to face things head on and not run away because your mental health was just a part of life.
“Don’t run from it because it will come back and haunt you,” she said.
“If you don’t deal with it, it will deal with you, so don’t wait especially if you have unexplained symptoms. All of these things improve with meditation and therapy. Your body is trying to tell you something.”
Mariella would like to see herself making a difference for the psychiatric community and teaching by example.
“I want to be a successful psychiatrist,” she said.
“It has such a huge impact on my life that I know how it feels when you’re helpless and there’s no way out — I especially want to work towards talking more about it.
“People need more examples. We need to treat it as something normal and not give it power.
“We are the next generation to come and the more normal we treat it — that this is normal and everybody can go through something like this — that’s the attitude we can get in return.
“So that is my goal and I hope we can reach a world that is much more accepting until now. I wanted to make something good out of something bad and I thought this was the way to do it.
“Be the change you want to see in the world and if you’re still waiting for the person who’s going to change your life, take a look in the mirror.”
Mariella Suleiman is a medical student at Hashemite University in Jordan. She is in her final year of medical school with the hopes of becoming a psychiatrist one day. She hopes for a world where people may receive proper mental health treatment, where things such as prejudice and judgement may be reduced. Wanting to raise awareness about mental health, Mariella talked about her experiences with general anxiety disorder.