The past couple of years in Egypt have seen a collective departure of dissidents from across the political spectrum, including figures once at the forefront of political mobilizations. For those who see themselves as connected to the revolution but remain, these are depressing times, and increasingly lonely times too, as friends and comrades leave or are imprisoned.
Several journalists, artists, activists, human rights workers and scholars, between the ages of 20 and 60, shared their responses to this question: “When things get particularly rough politically or personally — you’ve had a tough day in court, a friend has been arrested or you wake up to some terrible news — what do you do to get through?”
Common across their daily coping strategies are their solitary nature, the need to do something physical to cope with rising anxiety levels and heavy increases in drug consumption.
Manual distraction: Music boxes, spinning tops, knitting
Several people describe a need to busy their hands while socializing, working or holding meetings, as a way of focusing better and dealing with nervous energy or anxiety.
“This is my spinning top. I got it at a charity shop and I have a collection of them. I like to carry one around in my bag, because then I can just take a break from whatever I’m doing and watch it spin for a few minutes.”
“I also have a collection of small kaleidoscopes in my bag for long car rides. The kaleidoscope is a reminder that you can look at things differently, that things can look and be different. The spinning tops are very soothing and hypnotic. They’re stable but also constantly moving, so give an illusion of stability.
“Both of them have something that is kind of infinite somehow. They make me happy when I open my bag, and serve a different purpose to my laptop or notes.” (Writer, journalist)
“I knit, and as I’m using my hands the focus isn’t on what I’m doing. I know that if I don’t get into that mode, I may sink into depression. It’s not an end in itself, it’s a means to an end, and it’s a means to not closing in but opening up. For me, knitting means I can engage in something that I think is productive and beautiful, and is aesthetically pleasing to me. But also, by doing something, I’m freeing up my mind to travel somewhere else, as I don’t have to focus on the knitting itself.
“I also knitted during my PhD as a way of reflecting on problematic aspects of it. I would sit and knit and think about it, resolve problems, reflect, ask questions, and at the same time tell myself I was being productive so I didn’t get down or have a writing block.
“It’s interesting that I chose to go back to knitting at a moment when everything was blocked. It allows me a space to reconsider, to be nostalgic, to be zen and to release a tremendous amount of negative energy.” (Academic)
“I have depression and OCD, and take medication. But I also do the anti-stress therapy coloring books and I love it. This is fairly new for me; I started when I began therapy. I do it while listening to music, because it helps me listen better somehow.” (Journalist)
“When things get stressful, I go to the bathroom, lock myself in and play football games until I score a goal, mostly at work.” (Journalist)
“I set up my apartment as a series of distractions from when I wake up: my PlayStation, piano, jigsaws, computer. It helps me to consciously keep busy and not fall into depression.” (Filmmaker)
“There’s something soothing about the looping melody coming out perfectly well from this little music box. It’s soothing because it also involves a faint bodily movement, manifested in winding the handle, as opposed to listening to music. It is an undemanding movement out of which something very nice comes. So it’s corporal in a very banal way and I like that.”
“The object itself is beautiful on many levels: Its being a miniature, full of details and powerful both in terms of its metal form and the sound it produces.
“I like to play with it to disrupt a moment of boredom or to fill the dead seconds of time spent in the impossibility of doing work.” (Journalist)
Consuming substances: Food, alcohol, drugs
Many people we spoke with use substances to numb themselves and help them get through the day — food, alcohol and over-the-counter or prescribed medication for depression and anxiety and other drugs.
“Since the coup, things have become very grim and bleak, so I tend to consume more substances — alcohol, hash. I also play or listen to music. I’d like to take up something new as a distraction from this bleak existence, but am not sure what.” (Musician)
“I recently started drinking most nights before I go to sleep to help my brain shut off and my body to wind down.” (Lawyer, activist)
“I eat a lot to cope. For example, the day of the church explosion, I ate 12 sandwiches in an hour. I can’t smoke because I’m sick these days, but I drink a lot. And Xanax, from the beginning of the day. I started taking it seven years ago, some months before the revolution, but back then it was once a week or something. Nowadays I take three a day minimum, more when I’m anxious. I think I’m addicted now. I’ll drive a long way to find a large quantity.” (Journalist)
Solitary movement: Late-night walking, driving, cycling
There is a commonality among people seeking late-night solitude through walking, driving or cycling, particularly over the last couple of years.
“I go for walks — music on, everything else off… It doesn’t help much, but it keeps me going. The walks started after Rabea [al-Adaweya, where a massacre occurred in 2013]. I used to get muscle spasms and they helped stop my thoughts a bit. It’s a bit hard because of street harassment, but it always helps.” (Activist)
“I drive around the city late at night with the music on, alone, for some time away from work and family. Often I wait until late at night to buy bread for my daughter’s sandwiches the next day.” (Journalist)
“Sometimes I walk, mostly after 11 pm. I go to the supermarket to get something, or pay my mobile bill. Qasr al-Aini street is usually empty after 10 or 11, so it’s a nice time to walk.” (Academic, writer)
“I recently started riding a bike. I wanted something active, because when I work my body, it gives me better energy and a better sense of my own day. It makes me happy when I’m on the bike and people see me, and this little twinkle happens. It feels like that time after the revolution when people wanted to talk to each other on the street, and women were more comfortable talking to men, and people from different social classes were interacting… It reminds me of a time when people would still interact on the street in a positive way, and not in a way that’s just to be shitty to each other.
“I don’t think my life is that difficult compared to other people here. I’ve lost people who were close to me, but not a direct family member. When I let myself get self-indulgent it really affects me, and I feel just floating more and detaching may not be the most intense human experience, but helps me deal with everything. It helps me to not be so angry.” (Journalist)
“After a particularly shitty day, I shut off. Sometimes I dance to music alone in my room.” (Human rights worker)