There was a small lie in the last sentence of my previous essay, part 2. In a therapy session a few days after I took the online test, I tried to find the courage to say something to my therapist about what had happened. I will refrain from detailing what exactly happened next, but I will say that I went into it with so much doubt and uncertainty that I was dismissing myself as I told her. I gave her no space to respond.
So she did the best she could with what I could give her at the time (I think I might be autistic but I’m probably wrong, right? It can’t possibly be. I’m not autistic. There’s no way I’m autistic. I would know!) and helped ease my obvious distress by moving right past it. And I don’t blame her. She didn’t know me well enough by then. She’d heard of my struggles, but she’d never witnessed me in meltdown mode. She knew I had social anxiety, but who doesn’t these days? For all she knew, I was a smart, charming, well-spoken, determined young woman-poet who just had a little trouble with anxiety sometimes. Nothing serious. We’d work through it together. She had my back.
This probably would have been the end of it if I didn’t move back to Riyadh in September of 2020.
While I was overwhelmingly excited to be around my loved ones and back home again, I was nervous. I felt like (no, I knew) the version of me that was coming back now was not the version that had left them 2 and a half years ago. That version had disappeared. She was gone. She was dead. They didn’t know the new me. They never met her. She was a stranger. I knew that in order to survive going back home, something had to change. And it was either going to be me or my circumstances, and I’d already done too much work on myself to ever dare change her again.
My initial plan pre-covid, like I’d mentioned to you before, was: go back home, move out of the family house, get a job, learn to drive, and be a productive and independent member of society. This was quickly becoming a distant dream (nightmare?). Because the me that spent 6 months in isolation could no longer do any of those things that the old me had planned.
First of all, my plan to move out was completely off the table now. My mom had gotten wind of my desire to leave and pleaded with me to stay home, offering to build me an entirely independent little apartment structure outside in our backyard. She wanted me to stay out of love, not out of control, and that made all the difference to me. I’d been away from her for almost 3 years and because she and I were so close, she’d missed me and wanted to have me within reach again. It was a compromise I could live with. It was a request (not a demand) and it came from a place of love and longing. So I agreed. Anything to make my mom happy.
But because my new little home was being built from scratch, I spent the first year back inside my family home. And I had to face everything I ran away from when I left to Barcelona almost 3 years ago. I was back in my own society, in a bedroom at home, right where it all started – and all the social responsibilities I’d left behind were about to attack me with full force.
The other thing that had changed for me in those months of isolation bliss was that the idea of “work” as we know it no longer appealed to me. I no longer wanted to get a job – any job, at all – or to perform labor ever again. This is where my anti-capitalism and my autism intersected: both sides of me now refused the idea of being exploited for labor. I had tried rest and I couldn’t go back to hustle. I didn’t want to. Nothing in the world could convince me to apply for a job. I could no longer stomach the hypocrisy and exploitation necessary to thrive in a capitalist work environment, much less justify my participation in a system I didn’t believe in. How can I possibly go back to an advertising job when I wanted to burn the whole capitalist order down? (I realize the privilege inherent in this choice and the sentiment behind it – this was a choice I could afford to make that many, many others cannot. It is luck, pure and simple.)
So that meant I was unemployed and had a lot of free time. But it wasn’t my own time. Because I was around people, so many people, all the time. It was proving really difficult to be sociable. Even though they were my people, my loved ones, my family, the people I spent almost 3 years desperately missing. I’d adjusted to being alone so well and I’d come to love making my own decisions, deciding for myself how my day was going to look like, only doing things I want to do. For 6 whole months, my time was mine and mine only. I didn’t do a single thing I didn’t want to do and I didn’t put a single ounce of pressure on myself. I was living that easy breezy life. For 6 months, my calendar was blissfully empty.
But now I was back home and the pressure was building. There were aunts and uncles and distant friends and acquaintances who felt entitled to my presence. There were gatherings I’d have to go to – the ones I could previously manage with some sort of (rehearsed) ease. There were weddings coming up. The thought of being around people who were now virtually strangers made my stomach turn (literally, hi IBS!). I thought of the small talk necessary to keep these pointless conversations going. I thought of the comments that would be made about my body, the entitlement some relatives feel to throw around snarky comments. I thought about having to fake-smile and fake-laugh and lie and say things like “I missed you too!” when I didn’t mean it. The thought of all of it was too painful. It was a life I wasn’t sure I could go back to. I no longer had the skill-set to manage those situations. My ability to “fake it” had disappeared. So had my will.
And it wasn’t just who I was on the inside who had changed beyond their recognition. Since I left to Barcelona in 2018, I stopped doing one thing I had done consistently for 27 years of my life: straightening my hair. For the first time in my life, I began to embrace my naturally curly hair, and it was a very big first step in my mounting rejection of eurocentric beauty standards. This started even before the months in isolation, only a few months into me moving away. And it was also something I could have never done if I’d stayed back home. And in those 6 months in isolation, I stopped wearing make-up too. Not that I ever wore too much of it anyways (it always felt too icky on my skin) but I was known for my signature cat-eye look and I was something of a pro with a little bit of liquid eyeliner. But then I was all by myself, and I didn’t need to make myself up, so I ditched even my little secret weapon. I even stopped applying the occasional signature red lipstick.
There was also the issue of the weight I’d gained. I grew bigger, physically, in isolation, and I had no desire to shrink myself ever again. I had taught myself to love my body. I had stopped hearing other people’s opinions of it in my head. For the first time in my life, the cognitive dissonance of adhering to beauty ideals while simultaneously fighting against them disappeared. I was who I said I was, and my morals matched my actions. It was a peace I didn’t know I needed or could achieve.
But this meant that when I came home I was pretty much unrecognizable. The thin (or always trying to be thin, like a good fat girl, to the point of surgical intervention), social, charming, straight-haired, black eyeliner/red lipstick, overachieving, rebellious, fiery, people-pleasing, always-ready-for-a-debate girl everyone knew was gone and I was a brand new person, a stranger, playing pretend, trying and failing at faking my previous self.
I was unapologetically fat now, for a start. That alone presented the biggest social barrier. Most people I knew (like most people in the world) are incredibly unkind to fat people at best, and borderline aggressive and hostile towards them at worst. My body was bound to dominate every conversation – people always feel entitled to an opinion – and I wasn’t ready to put myself through that. I’d been (apologetically) fat before my thin phase, and I knew how cruel people could be. But now I loved myself too much to put myself in situations where I’d be ridiculed and teased. I simply wouldn’t tolerate it. I’d explode with anger. And exploding with anger (at your elders, especially) is not socially acceptable, unlike blatant and explicit fatphobia.
So began the first of many difficult boundary-setting conversations with my family. This would be the first tough conversation I would have with my mother because it was the most important one to me. I sat her down, and gently and diplomatically informed her that I would no longer be present at any social functions that included anyone outside of our immediate family (basically: her and my siblings and their kids). I don’t enjoy them, I never did, and I would no longer allow anyone to force me to be somewhere I didn’t want to be. I told her how being forced to be around people I didn’t get along with or necessarily like – who were bullies by nature and who never had a nice thing to say or any depth to their thinking, who thrived on pointless small-talk and malicious gossip – was exhausting to me. I told her I no longer had the energy to swallow my pride and smile and be polite. I told her there was a risk I wouldn’t be able to hold my tongue and I might end up saying something to them that she’d regret. I had to be a little stern, which she wasn’t used to – but I did it. I also told her that I would not tolerate any kind of negative comment on my body anymore, not from her or anyone else. My body, I explained, was now completely and totally off-limits. To everyone.
She made one request of me. I’d see my aunts just one time so they’d get a chance to welcome me home. They’re my dad’s sisters, so she implored me to think of what it would mean to him. They were excited to see me and they missed me, she said, so I hesitantly agreed. What I didn’t know was that they were about to make my point for me, and convince my mom that my choice to abstain from future events was definitely the right one.
The very first thing my aunts said when they saw me was “someone’s been eating a lot in quarantine!”. I almost laughed. It was entirely predictable and I saw it coming a mile away. But I was ready to make a point, ready to show my mom the new no-nonsense person I’d become, so I unleashed a torrent of anger at them.
“How dare you? Do you think I don’t own a mirror? What exactly did you hope to achieve with that comment? Tell me exactly how you think you’re being helpful? Oh, a joke? Do you see anyone laughing? How about from now on we become decent people who refrain from making comments about people’s bodies? Unbelievable!”
I couldn’t believe what I’d just said and done, and I half expected my mom to be red with shame. I’d just violated all kinds of Saudi social codes by talking back to my elders. It was glorious. I felt powerful. I just yelled at my aunts. In front of everyone. I was shaking, but you couldn’t see it from my straight, angry poker face. But the next thing I heard took me completely by surprise: it was my mom laughing out loud and saying “She told me she’d do this. She’s no longer tolerating anyone’s shitty comments on her body. You had it coming and you deserved it!”
I couldn’t believe my ears. She wasn’t defending them, she was defending me. She was… proud of me? She also knew that I was right a few days ago when I told her I could no longer do this. And that I was right about these kinds of settings being triggers for me.
So that was the last time she forced me to be someplace I didn’t want to be. And it was only the first of a thousand compromises she would make afterwards to let me know she wanted me to feel safe and loved and comfortable at home. In the coming year, she and I would grow together, around each other, and learn to make space for one other. In the coming year, my mom would evolve too, right alongside me, even out-pacing me sometimes. She would show me kindness, and patience, and respect, and she would go out of her way to make sure I was happy – or at least less miserable.
It’s still strange to me the way that things worked out next. The coming year would be one filled with heartache, anger, shame, pain, loss, and endless tears. In the coming year, I would unravel, completely and wholly. I would lose my speech. I would start to hate my body again. I’d lose half my friends and lose faith in the other half. I’d spend days in bed, unable to move, unable to eat. I’d snap and yell at my loved ones when they’d try to help me. I’d turn my phone off for days, sometimes weeks, at a time. I’d explode into fits of sobbing unprompted and for no apparent reason. I’d become a monstrous person, full of rage, full of anger, hell-bent on pushing everyone away while at the same time yearning for connection. I’d feel profoundly and deeply isolated and alone. I’d feel like an alien in my own hometown, in my own home, in my own skin. I’d spend most of my days thinking of ways to die without hurting my loved ones. I’d want to die, all the time. Because being and staying alive seemed impossible.
And then I started to notice a pattern. And I began to investigate. And suddenly, everything made sense.