Toward fixing my world

A few years ago, my family received a threatening text with compromising pictures claiming to expose my “sexual delinquency” to them. I was quite young at the time and, while I would say that I was quite aware of the world around me and the extent to which it could hurt me, I was caught completely off guard. I realize now it was naive never to have imagined that someone would use my personal life against me, to have assumed that no one would put me in such a vulnerable, weak and exposed position.

I expected my family to find out more about my life on their own at some point in the distant future, but I did not expect it to happen by force and at someone else’s hands. I want to say that I was outed to my family, but I am not even completely sure of that, and cannot state it with certainty.

I still don’t know the specifics of what the anonymous texter sent to my family, but I do know that it included an accusation of sexual delinquency and a demand for me to be “disciplined” as a result. All I can confidently say is that this incident was part of a larger network of threats that purposefully targeted and explicitly outed young, queer individuals in my immediate circle of friends and acquaintances, to their families.

I still wonder if my family was trying to protect me by not telling me what exactly they were told, or if they were trying to protect themselves from realizing what was truly right in front of them for years. While my family never told me exactly what this person said, I began to grow certain that I, too, like my friends, was outed. It made sense that if young queer people in my circles were one-by-one being outed, over short intervals of time systematically and if I was simultaneously being threatened by something so horrible my family wouldn’t divulge it, then I too had been outed.

The threats did not necessarily leave me concerned for my physical safety, but they ignited so much anxiety, panic and sadness in me that they left me feeling terribly and debilitatingly dysfunctional. For months after the incident, I did not want to get out of bed, I let my work slide and I did not see the point of interacting with the world or of trying to put in effort that I knew I didn’t have in me. My reluctance to speak in classes grew to an unwavering refusal to participate in any class discussion and disintegrated into a mess of anxiety if I was ever asked a direct question; I was sure that someone was watching me and just waiting for me to say the wrong thing so that they could humiliate me.

I developed so much anxiety that I could barely sleep through the night and had stress-related stomach problems, both of which significantly interfered with my everyday life. I saw my parents as ticking time bombs that were going to disown me, or worse yet (as many of my friends subsequently suffered) lock me up at home. Now, I realize they would have never done that. It’s not who they are.

I was so traumatized, and by something I knew so little about, that as I panicked over something I wasn’t even sure of I often felt the problem was me, that I just needed to pull myself together. At the time, it felt like I was searching for crumbs of information that would help me make sense of what happened amid so much fear and uncertainty. I knew that outing queer people was a tool commonly used against them for various reasons, but I hadn’t heard of it happening so systematically to anyone around me before. I second-guessed a million-and-one ways in which the person who was threatening me — and my friends’ — could have obtained the information that they did about our lives. They claimed to have “sources” my friends and I were completely unaware of.

The person said that people in our midst, who were close enough to know significant details about our lives, were turning us in. I had always been so proud of the circle of friends that I was a part of; I felt quite confident that we had each others’ backs no matter what, that we would never betray one another (though someone once told me that utopian perceptions of pretty much anything are ultimately dysfunctional).

To punch holes in my perception of my friends was to destroy a central pillar of my sense of self, security and safety. As much as I wish things were different, the kinds of problems I had in my life were not ones I could share with my family. My friends were always my first (and sometimes only) stop, but suddenly, I was forced to question my relationships with them and left in a swamp of anxiety, worrying over who might have done this to me and whether they would do it again if I unknowingly continued to share things about my life to this anonymous being. I don’t know if the person who was threatening us indeed had sources or if online surveillance was more their bag and I still don’t know if I believe the person, when they said our own friends turned us in. Sometimes, I like to believe the person was lying. My friends wouldn’t do this.

Fear and anxiety had always been part of my personal trajectory. Whether it was being too scared as a child to go out of my room and greet the guests my parents had over, or feeling like everyone was drilling disapproving stares into my fat, tween body, I always feared shaming and public humiliation. This inevitably played into and delayed my process of accepting myself as a queer woman; I was often scared of being outed against my will to the wrong chatty person — which would be another level of public humiliation entirely — but eventually I became convinced that I had what it took to handle whatever got thrown my way. I grew more confident. It was devastating years later, to be thrown a curveball that proved too big to handle. It didn’t take long before I reverted to feel the same fear as the little girl who refused to greet guests.

If someone were to see me “malfunctioning” in the aftermath of these threats, they would probably say I was “anxious.” And this indeed is what my therapist at the time said. I was anxious, she said, it had been too long without improvement and I needed to consider medication. I often heard words like anxiety, depression and “mild” PTSD thrown around, which all still trigger tiny flickers of shame and disbelief in my mind. I remember a psychiatrist sitting me down and telling me I had “no choice but to take medication”, I should look at it like cough medicine, because “if you caught a cold you’d take medication in a heartbeat.”

At the time, I was desperate for any form of relief and I almost took that prescription filled with anti-anxiety medication and antidepressants to the pharmacy to exchange it for the prescribed pills. Pills I was told were going to help me feel better. In the end, I didn’t.

For some time afterwards, and until very recently, I was enraged at this psychiatrist, that this was how he “handled” me. I was angry at my doctors because in my eyes I wasn’t “sick” and in need of medication — I felt violated, I wanted them to fix my world, to right how I was wronged. Medication meant bringing my parents into the picture, as I couldn’t finance it for myself; to tell them that I was suffering, that I had been for a while, that I needed medication. It also meant that they were right to keep asking me if there was anything wrong with me, and it meant I was lying to them every single time. How could I have explained that?

Today, I wonder if my anger at being offered medication was anger towards my anxiety for existing in the first place, regardless of its source. Was I too visible as a queer woman? Should I have “toned down” my work and sense of self, as many friends anxiously suggested? Should I have written less? Should I have not spoken at all? Was this somehow my mistake? Would I have chosen to remain invisible and closeted if it meant I stayed off the radar of whoever was threatening me?

I keep going back and forth in my mind trying to answer any of these questions, and even though I’ve made my peace with most, though I know recovery is not a linear process, some days the questions still eat me up and I wonder if I am still not “over” what happened. It still gets on my nerves to think that my mental health problems are (even partly) the result of an biological imbalance in my body that requires “professional help,” as opposed to resulting from external stress. It would mean that something about me is ill-adapted, unable to deal with the demands, pressures and violations that inevitably taint everyday life.

Sometimes I wonder if this is why I have taken such deep interest in understanding how mental health issues develop in relation to social violence (and why I am trying my best not to use the phrase “mental illness”). Am I merely hellbent on obliterating the possibility that there might be something “wrong” with me by blaming my anxiety on some unfortunate experiences I’ve had?

Looking back, I think my doctors couldn’t have fixed my reality or eradicated homophobia from Egypt. Could they have handled things better? Sure, but I guess therapy and medication were never intended to “fix” my world; they were intended to ease my suffering. My wellbeing mattered just as much as getting answers about who did this, why they did it and how they did it.

Dalia Selim