The phrase “too western for the east and too eastern for the west” resonates with children of the Somali diaspora on many levels. It speaks to our struggles relating to language, religion, pride, shame, culture, and ethnicity.
Somehow I was able to find a balance between these two worlds.
For twenty-one years, I had lived in the west and managed to contain this struggle. Other than the occasional fight at home, I felt accepted both within the Somali community and within the western world I was immersed in. I comfortably spoke English at school and the well-known Somanglish hybrid at home without complaint, and saw little fault with our culture.
That is, until we were faced with death. A death so brutally intimate that it left me gasping for breath and desperately trying to reach for a new meaning of life in a world that suddenly seemed useless to live in.
As instructed by society, I leaned on my family expecting to find comfort. Instead, I was told “stop crying the guests will see you.” Rather than grieving our loss, we were told to get up, wipe our faces, and make sure that the house was clean. Our home became flooded with every Somali person in town, most of whom did not even recognize me and passed on no prayers or condolences. We were given the task of feeding and maintaining the aftermath of what was supposed to be a family tragedy.
No one created a space to talk and process what had happened. As a result, I ignored it just as I was told to do. I didn’t cry or even acknowledge my sadness in front of my family members. Burying myself in school and work became my coping method.
Like all coping methods, this one caught up to me and I found myself faced with no distraction from the grief that I had desperately been trying to avoid. Of course, I immediately took to the only solution I’d been taught to turn to in times of trouble — prayer. So I prayed, and I had Ayeeyo pray over me as well. It was assumed that the grief had been resolved. I later learned that depression didn’t quite work that way.
Through education and therapy I was able to learn that our methods of healing are not always the only options. That mental health is serious and depression is a real disease. It was with those realizations and a process of open dialogue with my family that I was able to recover. This practice of open communication is imperative in the admittance of the importance of mental health, and holds the key to moving forward with this issue as a community.
We come from a generation of war this has resulted in mental health conditions we’ve neglected to address. We may carry epigenetic tags that predispose us to post traumatic stress disorder and perhaps even depression, yet we are taught that mental illnesses are not real, that the only cure is God. We are taught that we should not speak of such things. Silence was not the answer for me. I lost the desire to live and found myself begging for relief from the depression that had gripped me and turned the world inside out. My faith was questioned and the community that I felt was meant to cradle me in warm arms and soothe me, told me I wasn’t praying hard enough.
Ultimately, it was the validation and support of my family that helped me take the steps needed for recovery.
There is an urgent need in our community to accept the fact that mental illnesses are legitimate and worthy of our attention. That trauma is inherited.
Ignoring this is no longer an option.
With an increase in awareness, this acceptance can reach other Somali households and alter the trend of ignorance that surrounds mental health. Perhaps then, we can begin a process of collective healing.