There was a day that I was reliving over and over again. I had seen something on Papa’s phone. I remember gripping it hard, pressing onto the screen so I could erase what I was seeing. I remember my attention zeroing in on my thumbs and feeling relief. I loved that they were more square than round on the edge, and my siblings usually teased me about that, but in that moment I remember loving how God had shaped my thumbs. They looked exactly like Mama’s.
But I had been feeling strange even before this. Anxiety had been eating away at me for some time and I did not understand why. I was only fifteen years old.
The first time I realized I wasn’t okay was when it was recess and I was sitting with my friends. Everyone was having lunch. They were all laughing. But in the midst of this group was a girl whose eyes were welling up with tears, blurring everything in her sight. Me. “Anya, what’s wrong? Are you okay?” Inaya asked, patting my shoulder. I didn’t say anything. I couldn’t say anything. After that day, I was always crying in school. No matter how much anyone tried figuring it out, I couldn’t ever explain. I was grateful that I had good friends. God has always blessed me with good friends. They were almost always there for me when I needed them. Especially my best friend, Inaya, who was always consoling me. She was that one friend that God knew I’d need in every moment of life and I know she did her best. Eventually, everyone thought it was she who was making me cry. Still, she never left my side, then, or now.
No one at home knew anything about this. When I gave them the slightest hint of trouble they laughed and said, “You watch too many movies.” Still, Inaya wanted me to speak to someone in my family because there was only so much she could do to help. She and I didn’t have the money to help me see a therapist, and how could we have done so anyway without my family finding out? I convinced myself to confide in Aleesha aapi. I had two reasons for this: she had been gone for two years, and I felt that she was the only older sibling who might actually believe me. So I wrote her a letter, telling her everything. I wrote, “There are moments when I feel like dying, when my mind starts exploding with thoughts of dying. I start trembling, hyperventilating and my heart feels like it will explode any moment. One day I was at the top step of the amphitheater in school and I considered letting myself fall just so that everything would stop, so that my mind would stop speaking to me. But I heard Inaya calling out to me so I didn’t do anything that day.” I asked Aleesha aapi not to tell anyone because if any of our siblings knew I would be tormented. They would make fun of me and not believe me. And then I would think that perhaps I was actually crazy, that what I was feeling wasn’t real. Or they would say that there was nothing wrong in feeling the way I did, when the truth was that it wasn’t okay for me to have these kinds of thoughts, that it was horrifying to have to be this way every second of the day, with my hands trembling all the time as if I were high on thoughts of dying.
Aleesha aapi didn’t reply, avoided me when mama would video call her, never brought it up if we ever talked, and that was alright with me. I preferred not to hear anything at all than to hear something that might have invalidated my feelings. Then, a few days later, my eldest sister Asmara aapi and I were talking. She was irritated about a celebrity who had recently come out as having clinical depression. Asmara aapi said she couldn’t understand why and how people with wealth and fame could feel hopeless, that they were bad influencers for their audience. As she spoke, her gaze was on me. I said, “We don’t have knowledge of all things, God does. Pain shouldn’t be given numerical weightage and compared. What is a small deal to someone can be too much to handle for someone else. What she feels is very real for her. We may not be able to perfectly understand but we can at least believe what she’s saying. We have nothing to lose.” My sister only smirked, and my heart dropped. I knew then that she knew about me. Aleesha aapi had told her. I waited to hear words from my eldest sister that could have killed me, but she didn’t say anything.
I had to protect myself. I could not face a direct confrontation with Asmara aapi but with my other sister I could not contain myself, so I asked her if she had betrayed my trust. There was so much that she had to say in her and Asmara aapi’s defense, about the beauty of family loving you and breaking you and still getting your love. I did not understand any of it. And I did not care. I couldn’t trust any family member ever again.
I felt choked around most of my siblings. There was only one person I was comfortable being near. It was my brother Jazib. I had always liked him. He had always said nice things to me and I’d always had fun around him. But I was afraid of telling even him about what was going on with me and I wanted things to remain undisturbed between us. I wanted that there should be one person around whom I could keep up the pretense that I was alright. If he knew, he didn’t say anything, only gave me his precious boxes of Milo that he adamantly refused to give to any other sibling.
Still, I continued to build the wall around me. I stayed in my room most of the time. I kept the lights off because being in the dark made me feel as if I didn’t exist. I started talking to God a lot more. I had always cared about religion and now I tried even harder to recite the Quran and to not to miss a prayer. I wanted to strongly believe that God knows me best. Jazbhai had always said that religion is good for us and I wanted to believe him. More than that, though, I wanted to breathe. At the very least, I had to stop letting the memory of the phone haunt me. Along with all my other thoughts, this one was consuming me. Alone in my room, I came across a surah that talked about the qualities of a momin. After that I tried bringing my heart to life during prayers so I could connect more with God. I thought about the words I was saying, about what they meant. Slowly, my heart and mind became deeply immersed in the act, livening up my heart. Slowly, my focus moved away from uncomfortable thoughts and my mind quieted down. It wasn’t that the cause of my worries had disappeared. But peace had entered my heart. I had learned to live with my problems. I’d learned that I could live knowing what I’d seen on my dad’s phone.
With that realization, I felt like living for God. I felt like there was a lot that I wanted to do. I remembered that there was a lot to live for. I had promised Inaya I would gift her a picnic table from my first pay cheque because I wanted to see her have a picnic with her kids when we’d grow older. I remembered that I loved going for walks after Fajr in the park near my house with the cold wind brushing my face and God watching over me from the skies. I wanted to learn more and more about Him and His 99 names.
I wanted to forgive my sisters. Maybe Aleesha aapi didn’t know what to do after her youngest sibling had told her she was suicidal. Maybe no one had ever taught Asmara aapi about empathy. I didn’t want to be angry at my parents. They were only human. But I also knew that I shouldn’t have had to go through what I did. I should have been believed even when I wasn’t understood.
I am twenty-two now. My relationship with my family has been shattered for a long time. My walls are still up and I am not sure if I can fully break them down but I can take small steps I know I don’t have to do all of this. But I want to. So, I’ll build a window so I can be seen through it. Then I’ll build a door so they can walk through if I allow them to. I can do this at my own pace, one day at a time.
Roha Arif is currently pursuing her degree at the Lahore School of Economics. Primarily interested in non-fiction and fiction, she writes about family, friendship and spirituality. Roha wants to write about life in simple ways and hopes that her writing brings relief to people.