Finding (my) Autism – Part 5

I made a huge and entirely preventable mistake when I got home in September of 2020. I decided to wean myself off my SSRIs (antidepressants/anti-anxiety meds), which had been prescribed to me just before leaving to Barcelona in 2018 (but definitely not for the first time). 

I made the decision to stop without consulting a doctor. I made it because I was tired of taking a pill every day just to feel and be normal. I made it because I didn’t really believe the meds were helping me too much, or doing anything at all – I was taking them and yet I still didn’t feel okay, let alone “normal”. I made it because I thought I was ready. Because my psychiatrist, when prescribing them, had said “these will help you in Barcelona”, and I was back from Barcelona now, so I thought I could stop. That rookie mistake almost cost me my life, but it brought my attention to something I strongly doubt I would have noticed otherwise. 

When I started to crumble mere weeks into coming back, I blamed it on the pressure of re-assimilation. After being all on my own and living entirely independently in a foreign country for 2 and a half years, I was bound to have a reaction to coming back to my old and very busy  and very full-of-people life. But the depressive episodes I started to experience were far too intense, and far too frequent and debilitating. And the thing that scared me most about them was that they came out of nowhere. I had nothing to trace them back to. Nothing particularly painful or distressing would cause them. One day, I’d be laughing with my family and friends with an almost ease, and the next: I’m a mess. That terrified me. I didn’t know when to expect the depression or the rage or the tears; they came out of nowhere. Everything was suddenly triggering, and my skin was constantly on fire. When you don’t understand what is happening to you or why, it can be horrifying. I thought I was losing my mind. And in many ways, I was. 

One of the worst parts about what was happening was that I could feel myself disappointing the people who loved me. The people I loved. I’d have all my friends over, in my little room in my family house, and I wouldn’t know how to speak to them. I would sit silently, overwhelmed and anxious, one wrong word or move away from exploding. My friends would ask me what I wanted to eat and I would get so irritated I would snap and say something cruel. My mother would ask me to come sit with her and it would take all my energy to sit with her without suddenly starting to cry. “You’re different since you’ve come back” is something I had to hear almost daily. And I was. I knew I was. I was so different I could feel the people I cared about reassessing our relationship, taking a step back. 

I didn’t know what was happening to me, but I knew there were some things I could simply no longer tolerate. One of the biggest was the obsession with diet talk and thinness and beauty and how it seeped into nearly every single conversation with my friends. It was too much for me to handle, even though in the past I admit I must have contributed to such conversations sometimes. But now, I was noticing everything. How my friends’ obsession with the thin ideal was starting to trigger me, how it was taking me back to a place of body-hatred I thought I was past. When they talked about fatness (their own or otherwise) with repulsion, I felt shame again. And that made me awfully angry. I thought back to all the work I’d done on my self-image and self-love and felt it all slip away from me. In the past, these conversations happened around my thin(ner) body, so I could lie and tell myself it was well-meaning, nothing harmful! But now my fat body was right there with them in the room while they engaged in casual fatphobia and I didn’t know how to react. When I gathered the strength to do it, I tried to share how triggering that was for me, but it fell on mostly deaf ears. It was still keto this, cheat meal that, “I deserve these fries because I worked out today”, “I feel so fat!”, all day every day. And the isolation that created for me was incredibly heart-wrenching. 

Another was how empty and shallow my relationships began to feel. I would push myself so hard out of my comfort zone and through incredibly painful depressive episodes just to be around my loved ones, but then I was an irritable mess in the room, bringing everyone down. This hurt because I defined myself by my love for my friends. I put a lot of effort into creating and maintaining my friendships, a lot of work. But some friends mistook my sadness and anger and silence as anger at them, or as a newly-acquired boringness, or as sudden rigidity and/or an annoyance. I was no longer the “fun” friend. I was also no longer the “mom” friend either (signature me!), who was available to them at any given time for comfort or safety or a good time. I didn’t take care of them anymore the way I used to, or cater to their needs and whims (I could barely take care of myself!). I didn’t debate them on demand like I would before.

I started saying “no” to a lot of things, and that made me difficult. I was difficult to be around. I was suddenly very quiet, all the time, and when I spoke I had nothing good or interesting to say. At the beginning of my meltdown, I remember having an emergency session with my therapist, and through sobs saying something to her like “I have this nagging feeling I can’t shake that I’m gonna lose a lot of people by the end of the year”, and I was right. I said that to her sometime in January, some couple of months into me being back. By October of that year, almost half my friendships had dissolved. There was some hurt and betrayal and a lot of grief, but eventually it was best for all involved. We simply no longer got along. And that’s okay. Friendships end.

Pivot: remember when I told you at the end of Part 3 how I noticed a pattern and everything made sense? Let’s go back to that. And to the beginning of this essay, where I told you I stopped taking my SSRIs. I’ll tell you how those two things are connected.

I don’t want to be angry at my previous self because she didn’t know any better, but stopping my SSRIs when I did was… not very smart. Things went downhill from there really fast. You know about the depression and the anxiety and the difficult conversations I had to have with family and friends to keep myself from losing myself. All those goddamn boundaries! I thought I was overwhelmed and sad because I felt isolated and alien and exhausted from all that emotional labor, and that was a big part of it, sure. The confusing part was the rage I started to experience. Now, I’m comfortable with rage in the right setting. Context matters, and anger can be right and righteous. But this rage would  implode inside of me out of nowhere. I was angry, all the time – at everyone. And because I was angry, I couldn’t speak, because if I spoke up I would say something hurtful, and I didn’t want to hurt the people I loved. 

I’ve mentioned silence and not speaking a lot since I’ve started writing this series. I’ve done that because silence is really, truly excruciating for me. Those months where I couldn’t speak came after years and years of me suffering writer’s block after the death of my father (in 2015), and compounded that immense pain. Reader, you are reading an essay series of mine, so you have some idea what words mean to me. But let me elaborate briefly: I am an incredibly expressive person and words are my weapon of choice. They always have been. When I was very young (I’m talking 7/8 years-old) and got into fights with my mother and couldn’t confront her face-to-face (because I’d lose my voice, see?), I’d write her long extensive letters of apology or sadness at the injustice I’d thought I’d suffered. I’ve been a writer for most of my life now, and a spoken-word poet, so I don’t just have the need to write, but also the need to read it out and perform it. Words have always mattered to me. They have been my lifeline and my saviors. And silence was starting to kill me.

The depressive episodes and the rage and the silence led to isolation and shame and a lot of suicidal ideation. I won’t pimp my pain out, but I will tell you it hurt. A lot. And it made me feel extremely alone, so much so that I would turn my phone off for weeks convinced no one would give a fuck. Which made people angry at me. Which in turn made me angry. It was a vicious cycle. And no one was happy, least of all me. I was suddenly Crazy, with a capital C. Watch out, she’s gonna explode!

But I was lucky to have my therapist. She knows and I know that I couldn’t have survived those months without her kindness and love and her availability in my emergencies. She stuck with me and validated all my pain and hurt, even when that meant just an entire 50-min session of her watching me sob, wordless and without explanation, through video. (Thank you for always making me feel seen.)

My mother was my anchor in a lot of ways too. I will admit, with shame and a lot of regret (because I was wrong, so so wrong), that I thought my mom would be my biggest obstacle when I came home. I thought it was with her that I’d have to have all those difficult boundary-setting conversations, that it was with her where the struggle would be. But to my surprise (and I will never again be surprised by her love), she was the one who gave me the most space and unconditional love. Every single boundary I set, she accepted – at face value. Every request I made – for privacy, or help, or space, or love – was granted, no questions asked. She accommodated me so much, I’m getting teary right now just thinking about it. She accepted it all. I don’t know what I did to deserve a mother who, in a time where I felt all my friendships and siblings slipping away from me, showed me love and understanding and respect and compassion. She could see that I came back different, but she was ready and willing to accommodate the new me anyways. No questions asked. With love and open arms. She even got me new size 14 clothes so I’d be “comfortable in my new body”. My god, the ways she saved and loved me. (May I never breathe a day without you, mama. I love you so much.)

So I had some okay(-ish) days sometimes. Days I could semi-function, anyways. Somehow that was the most confusing part. Because I didn’t know which days I would wake up and want to call up my friends and which days I’d wake up crying and wanting to die. It was the perceived randomness that freaked me out. I didn’t know when the next episode was coming, but I knew I only felt “okay” about one week a month (at most). The rest: a mess, a bitch, insufferable, sobbing non-stop, beating myself up for texting my therapist on her holiday. In one of those emergency sessions, sometime in June, in passing, I say to her: “I don’t know what’s happening to me, but it’s starting to feel cyclical”. 

For some reason, my own thought sticks with me, and weeks later I am analyzing my period app data and trying to figure out a pattern – trying to figure out if when I said “cyclical”, my mind had noticed something my conscious self hadn’t. My mind does that sometimes. And I notice a correlation between my period dates and my episodes at their worst – a very strong and significant one. And I google “severe depression around period”. The first result:

Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder: Premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD) is a condition in which a woman has severe depression symptoms, irritability, and tension before menstruation. The symptoms of PMDD are more severe than those seen with premenstrual syndrome (PMS).

Premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD) is a more serious form of premenstrual syndrome (PMS). PMS causes bloating, headaches and breast tenderness a week or two before your period. With PMDD, you might have PMS symptoms along with extreme irritability, anxiety or depression. These symptoms improve within a few days after your period starts, but they can be severe enough to interfere with your life.

How is PMDD managed or treated?

Your healthcare provider may recommend one or more of these treatments to help manage PMDD:

  1. Antidepressants to help manage your brain’s serotonin levels.

First thought: holy shit! Second thought: how the fuck has no one ever taught me about this? Third thought: how exactly am I gonna get an official diagnosis when I can’t function or trust doctors enough? 

Things made sense: I had been treating a condition I didn’t know I had, PMDD (that “activates’” or “develops” at any point in life, apparently), with my SSRIs. And when I came back to Riyadh and stopped taking them, the re-assimilation without the support of the SSRIs was a deadly combination for me. Of course I crashed. Of course I crash cyclically.

Convinced I’d solved the entire riddle of me, I send my therapist a text saying: “I think this is what’s going on with me. Can we discuss on Thursday?”

Within minutes: “Yes, let’s. You shouldn’t have to suffer like this.”


Finding (my) Autism – Part 4*

I want to tell my story with care. I want to tell it because I believe it matters. Because I know for a fact that my weird sisters** are reading this and relating. So I will go back to the beginning for a little bit, and let you in on a little secret: I have always, always been aware of my status as the “weird” one. Ever since I was a little kid. For as long as I can remember. 

Inevitably, and without trying to, I always seem to stand out. Even when I am trying my absolute best to blend in, like in situations where my weirdness would invite violence. I say things I shouldn’t. I don’t act the way I’m supposed to. I overshare. I’m an open book by nature and not necessarily by choice. I call out hypocrisy and bigotry instinctively. I speak about my traumas. I’m straightforward, blunt, and I don’t play games. I say it like it is. And I don’t beat around the bush when I want or need something. I don’t even look right. I’m fat and I have piercings and big curly hair and visible tattoos. And I always, always, stand up for what I believe in. Even when I should instead consider my safety.

There are also things I really truly don’t understand, like fashion, influencer/celebrity culture, the desire to accumulate wealth and/or achieve social status. I tell potential bosses during first interviews that I don’t work late and work is not my priority (imagine their shock). I don’t care about making money or making sure I look like I have money. I wear the same clothes for the most part, like a uniform situation, a rotation of sorts, and don’t really have a “fashion sense”. I still wear clothes daily that I’ve had for over 10 years. I don’t know how to accessorize or apply make up, except very minimally. I don’t know how to perform femininity in a way that is socially acceptable, even though I consider myself extremely feminine. To me, femininity is a grand and complex performance which requires a lot of effort and acting, and I’m not a good actor, despite how hard I try. I have always been lacking. And that creates discomfort for a lot of people around me.

I am also constantly baffled by arbitrary social rules and find myself failing time and time again to adhere to them. I can’t count how many times and ways that has gotten me in trouble. For example, when I got gastric banding surgery in 2009 and people started to ask me how I got so thin, I told them I got surgery, much to my family’s horror. Apparently I was supposed to lie and say “I lost weight by eating healthy and exercising” and never disclose the shameful fact that I needed surgical help to look socially acceptable. It didn’t matter that I dropped 15kgs in 2 weeks, I was still expected to lie right to people’s faces, even though I knew they had eyes and a sense of time. And it didn’t matter if they believed me, because they wouldn’t, it mattered that I cared enough to lie. And I didn’t. I told the truth, every time. And that was a bad thing.

There are a lot of things that come naturally to people that I have struggled with my entire life. For years, people were put off by my directness, by the fact that I share my feelings and thoughts and political opinions openly and on public platforms, by the fact that I apparently have a “resting bitch face” and am “intimidating” (even though I think of myself as a smiley, kind person), by something about me they couldn’t quite put their finger on. Something about me was “off” and people could sense it. Even when neither they nor I knew what it was. I was very “intense”. I gave way too many impassioned speeches and started debates when provoked or intellectually stimulated. People would inform me I had “enemies” I didn’t even know about. A lot of people I’d never even met, I’d be told, actually hated me. I was “too much”, always, no matter how little I said or did. I never understood that.

But I managed (or tried) to teach myself, by watching my family and friends, how one was supposed to act. The general do’s-and-don’ts of existing in a Saudi public space. With time, I learned how to fake it, but only to a certain extent. I could attend an event and put up an okay performance, but it was never perfect. I stumbled over my words. I didn’t know the correct responses to traditional Saudi greetings or phrases. I embarrassed my mom by being too shy to talk to her friend’s daughters. My grip on the Arabic language was never too strong, especially under pressure. I wouldn’t know how to respond to questions. I couldn’t find my words. I stuttered and stumbled over them and over myself. Or I would just sit there, quiet and eerie-looking. I hated dressing up and I hated wearing make-up and you could tell. Heels were the bane of my existence. I dreaded those situations to the point of tears sometimes. But they were a natural part of life, something I had to do, never a choice. “Beauty is pain”, right? So I kept trying to be the person who did those things. Not out of choice, but out of necessity. I kept twisting and contorting myself into the person everyone told me I should be. I never wanted to be the odd one out. But it happened every time. 

I managed to find kin along the way, thankfully. People who not only were not put off by my too-muchness and my weirdness but rather were drawn to it. Who appreciated my truth-telling and openness. Who respected my politics and my opinions. Who respected me and loved me for exactly who I was. Who didn’t force me or ask me to be anything other than myself. Who saw my intensity for the passion that it was. I found them at different points in my life, but each one of them saved me. I owe them everything. Thank you, beloveds (you know who you are).

It was around those people, and my family, that I could be a little more like my real self. A version closer to who I really was than the version the rest of the world sees. With my loved ones I could, to an extent, be me. And be loved. And accepted. I could be fun sometimes. I could give myself permission to be silly. If I had a bad day, they would comfort me. If I had a panic attack, they would try to help me come down from it. If I had a meltdown, they’d make sure I could get home or feel safe. If I over-shared, they would listen, and thank me for opening up to them. If I went silent and could not speak, they wouldn’t ask me to. When I was grieving the death of my father, they carried me through that period of intense madness and grief. They were my safe space. 

It was within that space, that beautiful and safe and loving space my loved ones created for me, that I was able to maintain my sanity and feel some sense of belonging. A belonging I craved but always felt out of reach. But it was also the spaces I was able to create with their support that helped keep me alive and find a sense of purpose. 

Because of my weirdness, I realized pretty early on that I would need to create my own communities if I wanted to survive. I knew this world was not made for me and I would have to make my own. But I couldn’t do it alone. So at age 18, in 2009, when that need for belonging plagued me, I went to my best friend for help. She was my first ever weird sister, the first person in the entire world who made me feel seen and whole from our first encounter. Even though she and I had only recently met, she was quickly becoming a big part of my life and I’d felt a closeness to her and an acceptance from her I had never felt before. I knew she could see my weirdness and that it was the part of me she was drawn to and loved. She felt similar. She felt like a mirror. I felt safe around her. She was the first person in my life who taught me what a friendship actually could be. I refer to her as the “platonic love of my life”, because she really is. Her friendship and compassion have made me the person I am today, and she continues to show me the same love and support, even though we now live on different continents. (May we one day reunite, my sister, my platonic love.)

Together, we co-created our first weird community. The Writing Club, as we called it, was a space for girls and women like us to be creative. It was the first of its kind, and we poured a lot of love and thought into it. Our meetings were very intimate, and while they mostly were centered around our writings, it was a space for us to be ourselves – our real, unfiltered selves – without judgment. We had strict rules about that. It was an explicitly “safe” space, and open expression was not only tolerated but encouraged. Bigotry was a big no-no. Criticism had to be kind or it wasn’t tolerated. Our members wrote about their love lives, their pain, their sexualities, their desires, their politics, their grief and joy. Nothing was off-limits. We could talk to each other about everything, and then share our work with the entire world if we wanted. We would go on to create the first english-speaking literary open-mic night in Riyadh in 2012. It was my first time performing my poetry on a stage and to an audience. We filled the hall with over 400 people. Guests had to sit on the floor for lack of enough chairs. Our members all got the chance to perform their work to their own local audience and it was a huge success. And I would continue to be a spoken-word poet for the rest of my life. That experience shaped me.

It was a beautiful project. And my best friend and I would continue to run the club until around 2016. By then, we’d even branched out and helped with the creation of sister-clubs all around the region. We traveled all over the SWANA region meeting members of our sister-clubs and performing at their events alongside them. We were making our voices heard. We were doing big important things all on our own. We had created our own little beautiful oasis in the desert. 

The Writing Club died a natural death, I like to say often. It was time. Our job was done. And we did it beautifully and with love and so much care. My best friend and I still celebrate everything we were able to accomplish through it. It was our baby. In a lot of ways, it still lives in us. It was so, so beautiful. It was a time in our lives where it felt like anything was possible.

Then in 2017, a year before I left to Barcelona, I started to feel the void left behind by the conclusion of The Writing Club. I missed that feeling of belonging and community. The problem was, I had been suffering from a severe case of writer’s block – which was one of the reasons the writing club had to end – so another writing club was out of the question. Which is how, together with another very dear friend of mine, I got the idea of starting the Women’s Book Club. It was a book club by name only, in the sense that it didn’t quite operate the same way a conventional book club would. There was no set selected book we would discuss. The members were not actually required to do any reading (though most of them did). What it was, essentially, was a little debate club, where members were free to discuss any book they’d come across that had any kind of feminist themes. We stressed inclusivity and openness and safety, and our meetings were hotbeds for debates on feminist and queer theory and intersectionality, racism, sexism, and classism. We talked about everything and everyone was treated with respect and dignity, everyone was valid. The conversations flowed freely and everyone would leave with a sense of catharsis and the feeling of being heard. My friend and I had the time of our lives running it together. I was sad when I had to leave and we had to end it.

I will end the history lesson here. I wanted to give you a glimpse of the person I was before. The person who was willing and capable and able and did Big Things and started clubs and was successful and had a steady job and got on stage and did a TED Talk and charmed entire audiences. I wanted you to know my old self. Because she was important and she mattered. But she was also in a lot of pain. She never really felt like she fit in. She felt extremely alone, a lot of the time. And she put an extraordinary amount of pressure on herself to be and do all those things. It took so much energy. 

When I came back from Barcelona, I couldn’t be her anymore. I was expected to, but I didn’t know how to. I spent 27 years collecting the data I’d need to be seen as a Normal Human, but I could no longer apply any of that knowledge anymore. 

I felt broken. I felt like a disappointment. And the crash that followed when I tried to be her again and failed spectacularly was inevitable.

*For M and N

**A reference to Joanne Limburg’s book, “Letters to My Weird Sisters: On Autism and Feminism”.

Finding (my) Autism – Part 3

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.

Finding (my) Autism – Part 2

You know how most people kept saying that nothing in the world could have prepared them for the unprecedented chaos of covid-19? I was not one of those people. Born with fear and anxiety in my blood, I had always learned to expect the worst. And because I always like to be prepared, I do my extensive research beforehand, I dig into the past, I try to see what history can teach me about today. 

This is why as soon as I got wind of a little virus creeping into the everyday news cycle, I knew what to do. By then, I’d read about the Spanish Flu and watched hours-long videos on the effects of pandemics and the global responses that followed. I listened to historians give speeches about the devastating after-effects. I knew about the death and destruction one little viral disease could bring about. And I knew, for a fact, in my heart, that this virus wasn’t just going to “go away” in 2 or 3 weeks. I knew I had to quarantine quickly. I was, after all, all alone in a strange city, away from all my family and loved ones. If something happened to me, there would be no one to help or even know. I lived alone.

So I confined myself to my apartment very early on, even before the word “quarantine” became a popular word, before it became very widely used. It was mid-February, and I had decided that I was not leaving my apartment ever again. No, sir. Maybe not until August! When I told my therapist I wanted our sessions to be virtual from now on, she agreed. So we kept doing our weekly sessions online, where she began to witness the strangest reaction to a global pandemic anyone ever could.

Because you see, the problem I faced when the initial shock and fear and panic attacks and thoughts of mass death wore out was not that I was starting to get lonely. Quite the opposite, really. The problem after the first month of total isolation was that I was beginning to love it. And I didn’t want it to end. Being completely alone was making me the happiest I think I’d ever been. And worried, I began to ponder what that really said about me, as someone who defined herself by her love of her people and who craved human connection and intimacy deeply. But I shoved those dark thoughts and all that doubt aside.

I remember very vividly a moment about 3 months into the pandemic where I ashamedly confessed to my therapist that “I think I might be… thriving?” And I was. I had created my own daily routine and my own little world and I was beginning to love every single second of it. I was free of others’ expectations and demands, and free from having to be in public and be perceived by other people. I was free to find out who I really was. And boy, what a shock it was when I found out who that was. 

I would wake up every morning at 7 am, open my big french windows to let the sun in (I had direct sunlight through my windows from about 7.30 am until 10.30 am), position my chair right in front of it, and bask in the sunlight. I would usually sit there in a swimsuit just so I can feel the sun directly hit my skin. My music played in the background and I would sing along, drink my coffee, and take in the sun’s kisses. It felt euphoric. I loved watching the empty streets. Catching glimpses of my neighbors who – in the spirit of covid-19 solidarity – would smile and wave at me. Sometimes I’d opt for a towel on the floor in front of the window and trick myself into thinking I was on the beach (which turned out to be better than the beach, because I hate the beach, because ew! sand! and because I’m terrified of open water). I’d read some poetry and have long calls with my loved ones where we’d update one another on our new covid lives. 

What also happened during those basking-in-the-sun moments was that I allowed myself to face my physical body for the first time, too. Across from the chair I would usually lounge on was the open window, which reflected my body back to me with alarming precision. During the hours I would sit there in the sun, my body stared back at me aggressively. There was no other way to position the window door, this was the only way it could be left open to let the sun in. So I’d have to sit there, hours on end, enjoying the sun on my skin, and trying to avoid looking away from the window door that had now turned into a mirror. 

I stared at my big belly, the one I grew up hating, the same one everyone around me taught me to hate – the same one some people claimed didn’t even exist! -, and fell in love with the way the sun was reflecting off of it. I’d squeeze it and make it into funny shapes and let it wiggle and giggle. I stared at my “thunder thighs” and instead of thinking I wish they would go away, I found myself caressing them with love. I’d never noticed that my thighs were so incredibly soft! My big forearms no longer bothered me. I felt the power they held. I’d always had freakish upper-body strength and the bigness of my arms reminded me of that gift. My developing double-chin made me feel cute and laugh roaringly every time I opened my phone’s front camera by mistake. Even my flat ass was suddenly adorable to me, as were my big hips and love handles. I was falling in love with my body. Or rather, I was unlearning all the hate I was taught to give it. I remember distinctly saying to my therapist something along the lines of:

“If this was all an experiment on how being around people can negatively affect body image, the results would be very conclusive. I’ve never felt better about my own fat body than I do now, in total isolation. Around other people all I can do is hate it.”

When the sun moved away from my window, I’d take to the couch and watch TV shows. I’m something of a TV show enthusiast, so I filled my days with dramas and comedies and psychological thrillers and sci-fi and every single thing that interested me. I’d eat on my own time, but I always made sure I was well-fed enough to stave off an IBS attack. My stomach explodes when I starve it, so I try to remember to feed it lest it unleashes its anger on me.

Other quarantine activities included long video calls with my loved ones. It was their love and care and attention that kept me grounded. They made sure I never felt lonely. They made sure I never felt too far. There was also therapy once a week every week, where I’d update my lovely therapist on how well I was doing. If she was surprised, she feigned it well. And she provided me with support and validation and reassurance I could not have survived without.

Around 10 pm usually I’d go to bed. Nothing left to do with my day. And then I’d wake up tomorrow and do it all again, in the exact same order. It was bliss. It was quiet. It was heavenly. I was thriving.I was happy. I was happy?! And despite my mother’s pleas, I decided to stick it out all alone in Barcelona until August as I originally intended. She worried, but I convinced her it was the right thing for me. So she let up, scared and anxious as she was. I loved her for that.

One blissful July day, I turned on Netflix and found that my favorite comedian had a new show. “Douglas” by Hannah Gadsby had just been released, and I was filled with excitement to see what she had to say now. Her “Nanette” had changed my life two years ago. And her particular brand of humor was exactly my cup of tea (Hannah Gasdby fans, get it?!).

What I didn’t know was that “Douglas” was essentially a show about Gadsby’s autism. 

What I didn’t know was that she was about to plant the autism realization seed in me. 

So right after I watched the show – the show where a woman who I related to and felt a kinship with, a woman who mirrored me and my experience in more ways than one, described her late-diagnosis of autism, I was shaken. This was a woman who, like me, could get up on stage, charm hundreds of people, who had a fantastic sense of humor and a passion for truth-telling. And she was autistic. I didn’t think people like her (or me) could be autistic and be able to do all that.   

So I went online and took an Autism test – which said “high probability of autism”. I didn’t know what to do with that information. Plus, who would believe me? 

I put my phone away in shock and disbelief, and I didn’t talk about (my own or otherwise) Autism again for almost 2 years.

Finding (my) Autism – Part 1

What my therapist had just suggested took me completely by surprise. I think I was too stunned to answer, so she asked a second time, “have you considered dropping out of the master’s program?” and waited patiently for an answer. 

I tried to explain that not only had I not considered that option, that thought had literally never crossed my mind. “Of course not.” was all I could form in terms of a reply. Of course not. I was sure she could see my confusion.

She pressed on, “If you stopped the program now, are you worried that you’ll have to go home earlier than you’d planned?”

“No, that’s not it. I can stay here in Barcelona with or without this master’s degree.”

She continued: “Is it a legal thing? Would your visa be revoked if you dropped out?”

“No, my papers are already sorted. I can stay here legally until August regardless.”

She went on: “Can you afford the loss of the tuition you already paid? And the living expenses you’d need to stay?”

“Yes, I paid for the program myself and it wasn’t too expensive. It’d be a waste but it wouldn’t put a dent in my finances. And I have enough money to stay comfortably.”

“I see,” she nodded, “so technically… if you dropped out of the program you’re so clearly struggling with, nothing truly bad would actually happen, would it?”

I pondered her question, flustered. “But like… I’m already halfway through the entire program. I only have one semester until graduation. I’ve invested a lot.”

“But you’re here seeing me because the first half was so hard to deal with and so unenjoyable for you that you’ve developed agoraphobia and you keep dissociating and having panic attacks and being completely unable to go to class…”

“I know…”

“And that doesn’t sound like it’s sustainable. Are you worried that if you drop out your mum would be disappointed?”

“A little. A lot. She’s a perfectionist with high standards.”

“From what you’ve told me, she’s a very understanding person who loves you a lot. She might not take it the way you think. Plus, you just finished your first master’s program just last May and already have one master’s degree. This one was just supposed to be another addition to your academic arsenal. You never actually needed it, did you? You called it your “passion degree” as opposed to the previous more practical ones. But are you actually having any fun? Do you actually feel passionate about it? Are you learning anything? Are you finding the course content enjoyable?”

My head was spinning. What she had just suggested to me was nothing short of blasphemy. I am the perfectionist daughter of a perfectionist mother who had never ever (been allowed to) quit. And there I was, contemplating dropping out of a prestigious program at a prestigious Spanish university after having completed more than half the hours I’d need to graduate. 

All I could say back to answer all her questions was “No. It’s been awful.” 

“Well, then think about it. Just weigh the pros and cons and try to imagine how it would feel to not continue putting yourself through all this pressure. And if you want, we’ll talk some more about it next time.”

This conversation with my therapist took place in February 2020. I had just finished my first master’s program in May of 2019 and then immediately started my second master’s program in September of 2019. I was superwoman, you see. Plus, I wasn’t ready to leave my beautiful Barcelona and go home just yet, so this was an exciting solution to my dilemma. By June of 2020 I would have my second master’s degree in hand, then stay out the rest of my visa until August and then finally go back home. It was a solid plan. I’d be welcomed back an intellectual hero. My mom would be so proud of me. And then I could get my pick of jobs with my 2 graduate degrees in hand, find an apartment and live independently, learn how to drive, and I would live happily ever after. 

And then I burnt out. Hard. Halfway through my second program, I was no longer able to leave my apartment to attend classes. I was severely depressed and deeply anxious. I was never at university long enough or after class or at mixers to make any friends. I wasn’t able to complete assignments without panic attacks followed by hours of dissociation, and I felt my professors growing annoyed with my flakiness and perceived lack of effort. So I dragged myself to an English-speaking therapy clinic close to my apartment and met the aforementioned therapist and asked her to write me some kind of note I can present to university to explain my many absences and short-comings. “I’m really depressed and I think I’m becoming agoraphobic and I need to explain that to my professors” was how I think I started our session. 

When, by our second session, she gently suggested to me that dropping out of my program might be something I’d want to consider, I was confused. Mostly because I had never registered that as an option (me? a drop-out? never!), but also because I couldn’t understand the train of thought that led her to make that suggestion. 

Let me explain. She wanted me to quit something because it was hard for me to continue doing it and because it was causing me physical pain and mental anguish. But for me, that was the case with almost everything in the world all the time ever. If I had to quit something every time it was hard or caused me physical pain and mental anguish, I’d never leave the house. What she didn’t understand at the time was this: I experience almost every thing with a tinge of pain and discomfort. And no one had ever told me that was enough reason to just stop.

But I took her advice and I did. I wrote to my university to tell them that even though I was due to graduate in 3 months, I wanted to drop out immediately. And no, I didn’t want to claim the credits I already completed. They had questions and wanted me to know a refund wasn’t possible. I said I knew and didn’t care. They asked if there was anything that could be done to make me stay. There wasn’t. My mind was made up. I couldn’t possibly face going back to that place again. 

I dropped out of my program in February 2020. You know exactly why this is relevant. The plan was, I would spend the remaining 6 months of my visa learning to relax. My friends and family would continue to visit me with consistent regularity and I would fill my time with rest and the company of my loved ones and maybe even explore my creative side again. 

I graduated from my bachelor’s in 2015, and then immediately started working full-time after graduation. I worked in advertising and strategy – and excelled, to a certain extent – for 3 years before deciding to pursue a master’s abroad on a whim. I applied, got accepted, and left my hometown. The day after I arrived in Barcelona, my program started. And so I faced my own limitations in a new city for the first time. 

What I didn’t know when I dropped out of master’s program number 2 was that covid-19 was right around the corner. And the resulting chaos that ensued and the forced solo quarantine I was about to face would bring about changes and epiphanies that would have been impossible without that kind of profound isolation and alone time. What I didn’t know was that I was about to face myself – my real self, my alone self, my unmasked self. The self who I’d kept hidden from everyone up until this point, even myself.

It was a period that I now lovingly refer to as: The Great Unmasking.