“There is an alchemy in sorrow.
It can be transmuted into wisdom,
which, if it does not bring joy,
can yet bring happiness.”
In an earlier post (What Shrinks Know #2), I wrote about the importance of resiliency for healthy survival during difficult times. Now, I am experiencing the importance of resiliency when writing regular blog posts. There is a definitely a learning curve involved in starting and keeping a blog, and what I’m learning most about is myself.
Blogging has reminded me that I am not much for outlines. In school, whenever the assignment was to outline a proposed paper, I was instantly immobilized. To cope, I learned to write my paper first—then turn in an outline of what I had written. With blogging, I find that any attempt to structure my posts leaves me staring endlessly at a blank screen—creativity reined to a dead halt. But left unbridled, my mind runs wild.
With my book East of Mecca in the final stages of publication, I have Saudi Arabia on my mind. So, this week’s post is no longer about finding joy, but about finding happiness when feeling powerless. Right now, I need to write about Saudi—because I never knew powerlessness until I lived in Saudi Arabia.
My first day in Saudi, I was photographed, fingerprinted, and my passport was confiscated by the officials at Aramco (my husband’s employer)—only to be returned after an exit-visa had been applied for (by my husband) and approved by the Saudi government. I had a panic attack upon realizing I was 7500 miles away from home, in a heavily guarded, barbed-wire-fence enclosed compound, and could not simply call a cab, go to the airport, and board a plane back to the United States.
My life has never been one of wealth and privilege, and I have experienced most of the challenges women face in our society. Through sheer determination and hard work, I have also been able to overcome whatever obstacles were thrown in front of me and achieve whatever I set my sights on. I was driving at 15 and obtained my Ph.D. at 38.
Although I did my research and was a willing and eager participant, when I left my thriving private practice to follow my husband to Saudi, I had no idea how it would feel to be rendered totally powerless and dependent. I wasn’t allowed to drive or work, and, as a woman in Saudi Arabia, I found myself on the lowest rung of the caste ladder. I had become chattel.
I tried to be a good sport and make the best of it, but I didn’t do well. Every morning I woke up depressed or anxious or both. My husband went to work and my kids went to school and I was left on my own. It wasn’t pretty. I grieved for all I had left behind—and I struggled with creating a new and meaningful life in which my only identity was wife and mother.
I joined the Women’s Club and made a few friends. And within a week of my arrival, women were literally knocking on my door as word spread that I was a psychologist and not affiliated with Aramco. Turns out there were confidentiality issues with the company psychologist, who insisted on being called “doctor,” although he only had a Master’s Degree. He talked to some clients about others, naming names, and he shared session information with Aramco management. One of the first women knocking on my door was an Arab woman whose husband was a physician in the compound clinic. She had seen the company psychologist one morning and that evening her husband arrived home in a violent rage knowing all the details of her session.
After a month, even though I had new friends and a growing clandestine practice, I continued spiraling into depression. Every new story I heard about oppression and domestic violence and the ubiquitous surveillance we were all under in the Kingdom, pulled me further down. Every time I had to ask my husband for money or a ride to the town outside the compound, I fell deeper into despair.
Two months in to my stay in Saudi, I was clinically depressed. I knew I had to take action or I would not survive—so I listed the things I knew I could do to simply feel better every day:
- Exercise—which usually meant an early morning run on the beach
- Write—something, anything. Journaling my feelings, writing about my experiences in Saudi, working on a creative writing project
- Interpersonal contact—outside my family and women seeking therapy from me
Interpersonal contact was the hardest. It was years before the internet—and time differences and expense limited the ability to call friends and family in the States. Censorship in the form of phone-taps limited phone conversations in general. Interpersonal contact meant I had to leave the house and seek out others. If friends weren’t available I went to the library, or pool, the community and mail center, or the commissary. Some days, I just rode my bike through the quiet streets under the scorching sun looking for someone to say “hi” to.
In everything, I had to take action. I put a sign on my computer: “You DO have control of SOME things!!!”
These were small things, but they were important because I knew they would make me feel better. They were choices I could make to feel empowered. Every morning when I woke up feeling depressed and/or anxious, I could choose to get up and do these things and feel better, or I could choose to stay in bed, knowing I would feel worse. Some days I lost the battle, but over time I won the war. I made it through Saudi relatively sane, and sometimes I even felt happy!
In the end, Saudi Arabia was my greatest classroom for resiliency. I learned more about myself during the year I was there than in all the years before. And I continue to learn. Every day, I still know I have choices to make and most the time I do okay. But when I don’t, I at least try to be mindful of making a poor choice, so I still feel empowered.
Resiliency can be learned, and I’ve used the lessons I learned to teach others. It may be the most important lesson any of us ever learn, because feeling hopeless and helpless can be a lethal combination. Choosing to take actions we know will make us feel better, gives us a sense of empowerment, and paves the path toward happiness.
I also learned to truly appreciate what I already have as a woman in this country and never take it for granted—while I continue to fight for universal gender equality and the end of violence against women.
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